Is Thomas Torrance a Thomist or a Barthian?

Bruce McCormack in his essay/rejoinder Election and the Trinity: Theses in response to George Hunsinger, as I recall (I don’t currently have it to hand) identifies Thomas Torrance’s theological approach, and indeed, Hunsinger’s approach to Barth (following, largely, TFT’s approach) as Thomist. I think McCormack detects, at the least, a quasi-natural theology in Torrance, and in Hunsinger; but I want to focus on Torrance.

The thing is, I don’t fully disagree with McCormack. When you read books from TFT like his Ground and Grammar and Theological Science, we are confronted with his theological methodology; what he calls kata physin, or ‘according to nature.’ Here we come to see the sort of ‘critical realism’ that drives Torrance’s theological project. As we consider this, and cross-reference it with the approach of Thomas [Aquinas], it sounds eerily similar in orientation. I think we might adduce that TFT, on a sliding scale, slides towards scholastic [Aristotelian] realism, while it might be maintained that Barth is more at home in the nominalist world of covenant and language as that is driven by the ‘realist’ nature of the incarnation. But it is hard to discern some of these things in a neat and tidy way. TFT has sufficient Barth mixed in, particularly as that is focused by Barth’s reformulation of election and how that impacts a theory of revelation, that it makes it difficult to say that TFT is a Thomist in an absolute or even incidental sense.

Etienne Gilson, in his book The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas offers a description of Thomas’ approach to faith and reason, and how that approach implicates his understanding on how knowledge of God obtains. Gilson writes:

All possible demonstrations of this thesis aim ultimately at throwing into relief the disproportion between our finite understanding and the infinite essence of God. The line of argument which leads us perhaps most deeply of all into the thought of St. Thomas is drawn from the nature of human knowledge. Perfect knowledge, if we accept Aristotle, consists in deducing the properties of an object by using its essence as the principle of the demonstration. Accordingly, the mode in which the substance of each thing is known to us, determines ipso facto the mode of the knowledge which we can have of the thing. Now, God is a purely spiritual substance; our knowledge, on the contrary, is only such as a being composed of soul and a body can reach. It originates necessarily in sensation. The knowledge which we have of God, is therefore, only such as a person starting from sense-data, can acquire of a being which is purely intelligible. Thus, our understanding, resting upon the testimony of our senses, can indeed infer that God exists, but it is evident that a mere examination of sensory objects, which are the effects of God and therefore inferior to Him cannot bring us to a knowledge of the Divine essence. There are, consequently, truths about God which are accessible to Reason, and there are others which exceed it.[1]

Compare the above with Thomas Torrance as he comments on Barth’s method:

Barth found his theology thrust back more and more upon its proper object, and so he set himself to think through the whole of theological knowledge in such a way that it might be consistently faithful to the concrete act of God in Jesus Christ from which it actually takes its rise in the Church, and, further, in the course of that inquiry to ask about the presuppositions and conditions on the basis of which it comes about that God is known, in order to develop from within the actual content of theology its own interior logic and its own inner criticism which will help to set theology free from every form of ideological corruption.[2]

Here we get a sense, not just of Barth’s own approach, but more pointedly, Torrance’s. We see the ‘kataphysical’ realism that attends Torrance’s theology as he refers to ‘the actual content of theology its own interior logic and its own inner criticism.’ I would contend we also see a sort of Thomist realism operative, maybe only insofar as Torrance agrees with Aquinas in the sense that the object under consideration ought to be allowed to determine its own categories and emphases of inquiry.

Where I think Torrance avers from Thomas is not so much in method, insofar as an a posteriori realism is present, but in the sense that Torrance, following Barth, emphasizes a relational-personalism in place of the brute substance/quality language that conditions Aquinas’ theologizing. So, this is where I am tentatively concluding at the moment: I think Torrance probably does slide Thomist in certain respects, but he reifies Thomism under the pressures of personalist and relational language such that he ends up sounding much more like Barth than he does Thomas. In other words, at a superstructural level, I think I actually do agree with McCormack (if I recall him correctly, which I think I do), and see Torrance more as a Thomist and less as a Barthian in some significant respects. [This has the makings of a PhD thesis]

 

 

[1] Etienne Gilson, The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Dorset Press, 1986), 41.

[2] Torrance, Theological Science, 7.

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Using Barth’s Doctrine of Election as a Theologik for Addressing Issues Like Racism, Social Justice, and the Poway Shooter

Barth’s reformulation of the Reformed doctrine of election, a supralapsarian account, is useful for a variety reasons. I wanted to simply read one quote, which should be sufficient, from Barth and his Christ concentrated understanding of double-predestination, and then appeal to this as a way forward for confronting two issues that seemingly are facing the evangelical churches: 1) ‘Racism’ and so called Social Justice, and relatedly, 2) Kinism and the Poway Synagogue shooting. I will only be able to touch upon these issues, but I wanted to open a trajectory for thinking a Christ concentrated doctrine of election towards some concrete and applied issues. Without further ado, here is how Barth conceives of a doctrine of election that is diffuse with Christ all the way down; from beginning to end:

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

Tom Greggs provides some concise commentary on just what this understanding entails in Barth’s theology:

Election’s nature is . . . Gospel. The dialectic evident in Romans remains and can be seen between electing God and elected human in its most extreme form in terms of election and rejection. Humanity continues to need to be rescued by God in its rejection of Him. What is new is that this dialectic is now considered in a wholly Christological way which brings together the Yes and No of God in the simultaneity of the elected and rejected Christ. It is He who demonstrates salvation as its originator and archetype. It is, therefore, in the humanity of the elected Christ that one needs to consider the destiny of human nature.[2]

In Barth’s framing, as Greggs helps us to understand further, election and reprobation are both fully found in Jesus Christ’s humanity for us. As the eternal Son elects our humanity for Himself, in this electing He assumes our reprobate status as those who need to be re-conciled with God. It is in Christ’s vicarious humanity, according to Barth (and the Bible!), where we are able to think God’s free choice to be for and with us; and to not be God without us. This is Grace!

Barth’s alternative clearly is in contradistinction to what we find in something like the Westminster Confession of Faith’s understanding of election. An understanding grounded in the decretum absolutum that is not by definition grounded in the person of the Son, but instead in God’s arbitrary decree to elect some and reprobate others (whether this is an active or passive decree, in regard to reprobation, is debated among its adherents). This is what we see Barth critiquing above; viz. the idea that we don’t have a concrete expression of God’s choice to be for us in the absolute decree, and thus we are forever turned inward wondering if God has chosen to be for me or against me. What we have in this understanding of election/reprobation is a focus on individual people, rather than on the cosmic Christ. This has consequences when we start to think this outward towards the world ‘out there.’

At a theo-psychological level we are now operating with two classes of people before God; whether we know who they are or not (that does not matter). If we adopt this sort of individualizing notion of election we have an innate belief that God looks at the world of humanity in two ways: one side as the elect who He loves with an efficacious love; and the other, those who He does not ultimately love, and instead seeks to pour out His righteous wrath upon at the Great White Throne Judgment. For the latter there is no hope. They are those who were born in their sins with no way out, and thus will exist and die in a sub-human state. Before God these people are less than human because they are not ultimately able to be united to the only life that is Life, God. We do know that in the end there will be those who will be judged by God at the Great White Throne (cf. Rev 20), but not because they didn’t have a real chance to recognize their need for the living God; it will be because they actively rejected this offer of salvation (and the humanity that is entailed by).

So how does this apply to the two issues I noted at the outset? With reference to Social Justice and Racism, if we adopt Barth’s doctrine of election we will not view the world as a mass of damnation; or as two sets of people. We will not have the notion in mind that some people just are elect and others reprobate. As such, at a psychological level, we will approach the world of humanity as if every person we see and bump into are people who God gave His very life for; and continues to. In this ‘Barthian’ frame we will see people in the way God sees people, as people who are ‘peoplized’ or humanized in and from the humanity of Christ; whether they recognize this or not. If we view the world this way we will not see it as segregated into classes of people. In other words, classism will melt away because we will recognize that there is only one class of human being; the class that is grounded in the only real human who has ever lived: Jesus Christ. We won’t see people in terms of ‘race,’ but instead in terms of God’s gracious love to be their brother, and as such their ‘kin’ (Heb 2–3). We will understand that the Jew of Nazareth has a transcendent ground for His humanity, just as sure as that ground is the eternal Logos of God (cf. anhypostasis/enhypostasis, homoousious). We will recognize from this that all of humanity, just as humanity is derived from Christ’s, is precious in God’s sight whether they are red and yellow, black and white.

The second issue I noted earlier, in regard to Kinism, never gets off the ground in Barth’s reformulated doctrine of election; for some of the reasons we just noted. If the Poway Synagogue shooter had been catechized in Barth’s understanding of election, one where all of humanity is understood as ‘elect’ in and from Christ’s humanity, he would never had the thought that some people are more precious to God than others. If this shooter had been formed with the idea that God gave His life, as a Jew by the way, for the Jew first and then the Gentile, he would have understood that the particularity of anyone’s humanity has a transcendent ground and thus value before God. Presumably under these ideational pressures the shooter never would have had the theological trajectory open to him that he claimed to be thinking from. If the shooter had recognized, at a theological level, that all of humanity are equally ‘kin,’ because we equally derive (whether actively or potentially) our value and humanity from the Kinsman Redeemer of God, Jesus Christ, he may well have never taken the path he did.

There is much more to be said and developed, but maybe this might spark some thinking for you that you may not have had before. There are direct lines between the theologies we adopt, and what they produce in our daily practices and ethics. I do not want to suggest, with particular reference to the Poway shooter, that his understanding of election was the only thing going on in his head. But I do want to draw attention to the idea that he himself declared that he thought he was doing God’s work by killing the reprobate Jews. Is this a misapplication of a well-ordered and articulated doctrine of election from the Westminster perspective? Yes, in a way. But all that I am suggesting is that the doctrine itself asserts that there are some who are eternally special and loved by God, and others who are not. From this, I am further suggesting that at a psychological level, as that then gets cashed out ethically, a person will subconsciously view the world as divided up, at an efficacious level, into two classes of people; but Holy Scripture knows of no such division. If the shooter hadn’t had this notion inculcated into his young mind he never would have viewed the Jewish people he shot as sub-human reprobate individuals for whom Christ did not die. But this is a hard needle to thread. I recognize there were most certainly other problematic ideas informing this guy’s thinking. But I still think that if we don’t consider the real life ramifications this ‘classical’ doctrine of election might have at a psychological-ethical level that we might be missing something very significant. As an aside: One more example we might attach to this is the Apartheid that took place in South Africa under the aegis of Reformed theology and its doctrine of individualized election.

If we think from Christ towards all of humanity we will not be prone to think in dualistic terms about humanity; we will think humanity in unitive ways. If this serves as the psychological-ethical basis from whence we operate in the world, and with others, this will affect our behavior in certain ways. As corollary, as we just noted, if we think of humanity in binary ways (i.e. elect versus reprobate), we will automatically have a category in our thinking that operates with the idea that some humans are lesser than and even sub to others. If we ground what it means to be ‘genuinely human’ in individual people, rather than in God’s humanity in Christ, then we will have a propensity and way to think humanity that does not actualistically see people as ultimately valuable before God; we can only do so hypothetically from our own intellectual resources.

[1] Barth, CD II/2:111.

[2] Tom Greggs, Barth, Origen, And Universal Salvation (Oxford: Oxford University Press,

2009), 26.

The Non-Speculative Theology of Schleiermacher: Discussion on Schleiermacher’s and Barth’s Respective Theologies of Revelation

I once wrote something on Barth’s view of philosophy (actually more than just once). Barth, in summary, saw value in philosophy, but only in a horizontal sense; and more negatively with its illustration of how impotent it actually is when attempting to think divine things. In a note on Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Christian Faith one of the editors (i.e. Tice, Kelsey, or Lawler) offers insight into
Schleiermacher’s view on philosophy; interestingly it sounds very similar to Barth’s. While Barth, as we know by now, was critical of Schleiermacher, and the tradition Barth perceived him to represent, he was also of a kind in certain sensibilities. Here I think both Barth and Schleiermacher were of a piece in the sense that they wanted to smash any notion that speculation about God could accomplish anything of ultimate value. The editors write of Schleiermacher in the Christian Faith:

In tightly outlined fashion, this entire subsection borrows from conceptual structures prominently contained I Schleiermacher’s philosophical work, including especially his philosophy of mind and action (psychology and ethics) and his dialectic (including epistemology, metaphysics, and logic). Every claim made, therefore, has been examined and scrupulously set forth there. The question thus arises as to how he can, at the same time, claim that philosophical content does not belong in a presentation of Christian doctrine and, nevertheless, do such borrowing from his philosophical work here. Although this subsection does not directly address this question, its content is, in part, self-answering. That is, just as the material presented in the Introduction openly borrows from philosophy but does not claim to be doctrine, so too, Part One contains conceptual structures that help to frame his discourse, but he claims no more for these presupposed conceptual structures than that the reader weigh whether, and to what extent, two tasks he sets forth matter. The first task is to weigh which of these presupposed conceptual structures are pertinent to an actual presentation of doctrine. The second task is to weigh which, or all, of them are to be “presupposed” in Christian religious self-consciousness in our own time and place—on “real,” not merely “notional,” grounds. This second task would be conditioned on what philosophy and science can be taken to provide thus far to help us examine what can occur within our own “real” world. Among these presuppositions are claims that pragmatic theories would assert today (e.g. the impossibility of absolutely certain knowledge and the ever-present admixture of error in comparatively valid truth claims, and future confirmation or disconfirmation of such claims as empirically grounded theoretical and practice-oriented work continues). Moreover, some scientific observations and theories, which he relied on or foresaw, he thought might well be consistent with particular scientific and philosophical examinations of “reality” up to now. For example, his sense that if God cannot be known in se, there is evidence in faith-based experience that God does, nevertheless, reveal something of God’s creative, sustaining, and redemptive work in this “real” world, and that this inspiration and revelation can sufficiently inhabit the feelings and perceptions, and the thinking and doing of human beings, to be found among members of Christian communities of faith.

Such presupposed conceptual structures, he believed, can help Christians in the process of coming to understand and improve upon their own “faith” experience (cf. Anselm’s Prosologian, from which this work takes its motto: “faith seeking understanding”). However, as beliefs, whether firmly or tentatively held, they are not identical with that faith. Like all scientific or philosophical claims in other domains of investigation, they are to be constantly subject to critical investigation and consequent change. Nevertheless, in his view, if they come to us wholly from outside Christian experience of God’s grace through faith, they must not be allowed to intrude upon doctrine that can validly claim “reality” for such Christian experience and explain why to persons of faith. This approach, taken in all his works, emphasizes a critical realist mode of proceeding. Schleiermacher deemed this approach to be most desirable for all “science,” including those more philosophical or more theological in character.

Finally, as Schleiermacher indicates and demonstrates in numerous of his writings, should there ever be a τέλος (final end, consummation), it would be one in which the findings of reason and those of faith and religious doctrine would cohere. Hence, even in his time he did not fear that faith or genuine faith-doctrine would necessarily be endangered by any progressive findings of science or philosophy. Meanwhile, some folks are bound to disagree.[1]

Philosophy, for Schleiermacher (as for Barth), is something that happens “out there,” and it offers relative value and insight to the human predicament in certain qualified ways. What philosophy can’t do, precisely because of its speculative and horizontal-bound nature, is provide a solid foundation for the Christian theologian to practice their craft towards knowing God. In their respective ways, Schleiermacher and Barth, maintain that the theologian’s ingression for accessing God can only be God. How they arrived at the basis upon which the theologian can work from a non-speculative posture was disparate, to an extent. But they both saw Christ central to the theologian’s grounding-point for arriving at any sort of accurate knowledge of God. For Schleiermacher this meant that Christ was the point of contact and pinnacle wherein the human-self-consciousness could elevate to the presence of God; whereas for Barth, while the point of contact was the vicarious humanity of Christ, just the same, his emphasis was on the Christ extra nos or outside of us upon whom the human agents are fully and only contingent from moment to moment. In Schleiermacher we might say that we have an interiorizing of this Christ reality, whereas for Barth it is an exterior Christ who comes to us afresh and anew un-predicated upon the human conscious. But these are matters for another post.

Suffice it to say: Both Schleiermacher and Barth were committed to a non-speculative, via positive, kataphatic approach to God. This is in contrast to the sort of speculative theology that Thomas Aquinas and the tradition after him his known for. As such, this Schleiermacherian and Barthian non-speculative approach to theology proper (and the rest of theological task following) offers an alternative mode for doing Christian theology that is seemingly on tap for the masses of Christians who are currently being subjected to the retrieval projects of the various evangelical and Reformed theologians among us. Take heart.

 

[1] Cf. Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith: Volume One, trans./ed. By Terrence N. Tice, Catherine L. Kelsey, and Edwin Lawler (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 359-60 n.18.

My Actualist Theological Method: Reflecting with Congdon and Bultmann on Demythologizing Essentialism

God’s being is in becoming. Two of the six motifs that George Hunsinger identifies as the shapers of Barth’s theology are helpful to review in light of the axiom I just noted about God’s being. Hunsinger writes:

“Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation, and one on which the essay at hand hopes to shed some light. For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew.

“Particularism” is a motif which designates both a noetic procedure and an ontic state of affairs. The noetic procedure is the rule that say, “Let every concept used in dogmatic theology be defined on the basis of a particular event called Jesus Christ.” No generalities derived from elsewhere are to applied without further ado to this particular. Instead one must so proceed from this particular event that all general conceptions are carefully and critically redefined on its basis before being used in theology. The reason for this procedure is found in the accompanying state of affairs. This particular event requires special conceptualization, precisely because it is regarded as unique in kind.[1]

I wanted to share this, sort of as a ground clearing exercise prior to jumping into the rest of the post. Both actualism and particularism, as they are understood in Barth’s theology, will be important to bear in mind as we get further into this post. For the rest of the post we will be considering David Congdon’s treatment of Rudolf Bultmann’s understanding of mythology, and how he ‘demythologizes’ that through appropriating the sorts of motifs that shape Barth’s theology. He sees, according to Congdon, God’s revelation strictly as event that obtains in the concrete of historical actualization. This view undercuts the essentialist theological ontology that funds what we call classical theism or substance metaphysics; i.e. the traditional view that much of Western theology operates from. So, this places me in a place that is largely contra the classical theists of today; albeit, I think this approach helps explicate some iterations of the classical theism, or what some of the classical theistic theologians wanted to say but couldn’t because of the limitations of their own conditioned time and space (i.e. when it comes to the ideational material they had available to them at the time). With this said, let me share from Congdon’s analysis of Bultmann’s understanding of revelation as event as that is actualized in historical occurrence without remainder vis-à-vis God.

It is this insight above all to which Bultmann appeals in the conclusion to his programmatic essay on demythologizing. The problem with mythology in every age is that it dissolves the paradox and defuses the scandal by narrating the divine in a supernatural, rather than historical manner:

For the salvation-occurrence [Heilsgeschehen] about which we talk is not some miraculous, supernatural occurrence but rather a historical occurrence in space and time. And by presenting it as such, stripping away the mythological garments, we have intended to follow the intention of the New Testament itself and to do full justice to the paradox of its proclamation—the paradox, namely, that God’s eschatological emissary is a concrete historical person, that God’s eschatological act takes place in a human destiny, that it is an occurrence, therefore, that cannot be proved [ausweisen] to be eschatological in any worldly way. It is the paradox formulated in the words “he emptied himself” (Phil 2:7), or “he who was rich became poor” (2 Cor 8:9), or “God sent  his son in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3), or “he was manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim 3:16), or, finally and classically, “the word became flesh” (John 1:14).

The paradox precludes proof, according to Bultmann. It is precisely the “nonprovability” (Nichtausweisharkeit) of the “eschatological phenomena” that “secures Christian proclamation against the charge that it is mythology,” for, unlike myth, “the transcendence [Jenseitigkeit] of God is not made immanent [Diesseits]” in the event of divine revelation. The ability to prove (ausweisen) the eschatological requires having direct access to it, which is what mythology seeks to provide. Mythology grounds revelation in the Revealer’s “essential nature [Wesensart],” that is to say, in “the permanent consubtantiality [Wesensgleichheit, lit. ‘identity of essence’] of the messenger with God.” It is this permanent metaphysical access that the Johannine witness denies in the way that it “historicizes” (vergeschichtlicht) God’s activity in the Revealer. Christian faith in the word-made-flesh is faith in an event that does not permit such access, its salvific significance requires, instead, a constant vigilance against the temptation to stabilize and secure the Christ-event in a readily accessible form. The Revealer therefore calls each person into question and places every theological statement in a position of crisis. The word of revelation coincides with the existential unsettling of the one who hears the word. The truth of God’s self-revelation is thus a truth that works upon the hearer: it demands, negatively, a posture of self-criticism regarding the temptation to speak theoretically about God, but this critique contains the positive and practical demand to live an obedient life of love—a point highlighted especially in the Johannine epistles (cf. 1 John 4:7-8). According to this account of revelation, the hermeneutical problem, which concerns the relation between the event of revelation and the hearer of revelation, is internally necessary to the becoming-flesh of the divine word.[2]

The concern for some is that the ‘event’ itself is collapsed into the ‘hearer,’ thus giving the human agent the capacity to determine just who and what God actually is. But this, as I understand Bultmann, is precisely what he is countering. In other words, he retains the ‘orthodox’ Creator/creature distinction, but at the same time, and dialectically does not allow the ontological reality to be thought apart from the epistemological as those become a piece in the self-revelation of God given in the hypostatic union of Creator/creature in Jesus Christ.

What is attractive to me about all of this is the non-speculative emphasis present in Bultmann’s (and Barth’s) approach to theology proper. The speculative mind is put to death in the concrete heart of God as that is given flesh and blood in the humanity of Jesus Christ. I recognize the dangers some see in this, particularly as the focus becomes potentially overly existential. But for me, this danger is worth it. Speculative theology, as that is practiced in various forms of classical theism, is not commensurate with the narrative of Scripture itself; indeed, it is not commensurate with God’s self-revelation in Christ which is anything but speculative. And of issue, and this is what it right at the center of the impasse between something like Barth/Bultmann’s approach and classical theism’s, is what Congdon notes in regard to Bultmann’s theology: the hermeneutical question.

Given the state of humanity’s heart, what capacity does humanity have in itself to ever know God? And in what sense can even a redeemed humanity come to the conclusion that they have been placed into a stable situation that they can now manage between God and themselves? This is the mythology that Bultmann seeks to demythologize (even if he overdoes it in certain ways), and it is the essentialism that Barth’s actualism is intent on undercutting. If God’s self-revelation is an event, meaning a reality that keeps constantly giving Hisself over and over again, then in what sense can we, elect humanity in Christ, ever conclude that a stable bond of nature has now obtained such that we are in a position to speculate about the grandeur of the Holy God? This is what I constructively take from Bultmann’s programmatic move to destabilize what classical theism has asserted is the stable reality from their own powers of wit and speculation.

 

[1] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 16-18.

[2] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 488-90.

Karl Barth’s Nein to Serene Jones’ Rejection of the Physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ

If you aren’t on Theological Twitter (good for you!) you might have missed the tweet storms currently underway in regard to Serene Jones’ and the interview she undertook with the New York Times. If you don’t know, Serene Jones is the current President of Union Theological Seminary, in New York; and formerly a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School. Her statements in this interview are not really all that surprising, she has made other statements previously that would have foreshadowed what she said to the NYT. Nevertheless, it’s worth highlighting, if for no other reason because her views are becoming more and more trendy; although theological Twitter, representative of a large swath of Christians, surprised me a bit (in a good way). You might be wondering what I am referring to, at a material level. In particular, the NYT’s reporter, Nicholas Kristof, asked Jones what she thought about the bodily or physical resurrection of Jesus and the Virgin Birth: She rejects both.

For the purposes of this post I want to focus on her view of the resurrection; which is most significant in regard to what it means to be a Christian (that said The Virgin birth is actually of a piece … something Karl Barth, among others, understood quite well). I will share the pertinent part of the interview with Jones, and then I am going to quote a riposte from Barth; with reference to his view of the bodily/physical resurrection of Jesus (I recently posted on this very issue). Here is the New York Times’ piece:

KRISTOF Happy Easter, Reverend Jones! To start, do you think of Easter as a literal flesh-and-blood resurrection? I have problems with that.

JONES When you look in the Gospels, the stories are all over the place. There’s no resurrection story in Mark, just an empty tomb. Those who claim to know whether or not it happened are kidding themselves. But that empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.

For me it’s impossible to tell the story of Easter without also telling the story of the cross. The crucifixion is a first-century lynching. It couldn’t be more pertinent to our world today.

But without a physical resurrection, isn’t there a risk that we are left with just the crucifixion?

Crucifixion is not something that God is orchestrating from upstairs. The pervasive idea of an abusive God-father who sends his own kid to the cross so God could forgive people is nuts. For me, the cross is an enactment of our human hatred. But what happens on Easter is the triumph of love in the midst of suffering. Isn’t that reason for hope?

You alluded to child abuse. So how do we reconcile an omnipotent, omniscient God with evil and suffering?

At the heart of faith is mystery. God is beyond our knowing, not a being or an essence or an object. But I don’t worship an all-powerful, all-controlling omnipotent, omniscient being. That is a fabrication of Roman juridical theory and Greek mythology. That’s not the God of Easter. The God of Easter is vulnerable and is connected to the world in profound ways that don’t involve manipulating the world but constantly inviting us into love, justice, mercy.

Isn’t a Christianity without a physical resurrection less powerful and awesome? When the message is about love, that’s less religion, more philosophy.

For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.[1]

Jones’ views are nothing new (under the sun). She has simply succumbed to the pressures of the intellectual life; in the context she has been groomed. But I am not going to pretend to actually understand what in fact has led her to unbelief; usually, as Holy Scripture makes clear, the Gospel of John in particular, it is when we seek the glory of people rather than God that belief seeps in and overtakes us—often not recognizing that it is even happening to us.

Barth was groomed in a similar intellectual/theological context as Jones; albeit right in the heart of it all in the halls of the great German universities, and under the great teachers who taught the sort of Gnosticism that Jones is now a proponent of. So, it seems fitting to refer to Barth; with reference to what he thought about the bodily resurrection of Jesus. He writes in his early Church Dogmatics:

The Easter story is not for nothing the story whose most illuminating moment according to the account of Mark’s Gospel consists in the inconceivable fact of an empty sepulcher, a fact which (in producing a trembling and astonishment) lays hold of the three woman disciples and reduces them to complete silence for they told no one of it, for they were afraid (Mk. 16.8). Everything else related by this story can be heard and believed in the very literalness in which it stands, but can really only be believed, because it drops out of all categories and so out of all conceivability. It cannot be sufficiently observed that in the most artless possible way all the New Testament Easter narratives fail to supply the very thing most eagerly expected in the interests of clearness, namely an account of the resurrection itself.[2]

Interesting that Barth refers to the Markan account of the resurrection, just as Jones does. But Barth arrives at a completely different conclusion. He sees in the absence of the telling of the empty tomb, via the women’s witness, as a substantiation of the physical resurrection of Jesus. Barth sees in that silence the note of utter awe and wonder that a genuine follower of Christ would and should have. This is in contrast to Jones’ interpretation, one formed by unbelief and capitulation to a cultural atmosphere that is current in the sector of the academy she inhabits. What Barth has in his doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus, that Jones doesn’t (because she doesn’t even have the doctrine to begin with), is the same awe and wonder that the first female witnesses had of it. He understands its sui generis nature, and sees the resurrection as the history delimiting and primal reality that it is; at least according to Scripture.

If we were going to go simply on the quality of the theologian, Barth wins. But we don’t have to simply go on that, as significant as Barth is. We, of course, have Holy Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, the Tradition of the Church, and the ongoing experience of countless people who speak with the risen Christ each and every day (including myself). The very existence of the Church bears witness to the fact that He is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! The Church’s existence is contingent upon the reality and doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without it, as the Apostle Paul makes clear, we might as well ‘go eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ No amount of existentialist oomph can generate the sort of transcendent meaning and hope that the literal and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ has generated. And yet Jones seems to think that she can generate this very power; the power of God. But we know that the Power of God is the Gospel (cf. Rom 1.16). Ironic: the very thing Jones, and that we all need, is the very thing she denies in order to construct a vision of the kerygma that is built on the very foundation that the bodily resurrection shouts a resounding victory over; US and our incurved love of self. Jones has simply taken ‘turn to the subject-theology’ to heart, and built an edifice based on self-love from there (another theme Barth counters in CD I/2 §18).

 

[1] “Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth is a ‘Bizarre Claim’?,” New York Times, accessed 04-20-2019 [Emboldening mine].

[2] Barth, CD I/2 §14, 115.

The Analogy of Holy Saturday as an Occasion for Fulfilling ‘The Great Commandment’

Dovetailing with the last post I thought this paragraph I just read from Barth was quite apropos. It works off of the analogy of the incarnation, and in application focuses on the significance—and paradox—of living in-between the first and second advents of Christ. This fits well, I think, also with an analogy of Holy Saturday as a vista-point from whence we can perspectivize ourselves from the vantage point of living by faith not sight. As Barth notes, we gain our visible lives from our invisible lives as they are hidden with Christ before God (reminds me of Colossians 3). This is an astounding thought that what it means to live from the eschatos of God’s life in Christ, in the here and now, is to love God and neighbor. This is the most important thing to God; that we love each other as an expression of and witness to the eternal love that God has for the other as the esse of His triune Life. The broader context Barth is writing from here is his reflection upon the ‘Great Commandment’ (cf. Mt 22). He writes:

The connexion and the difference between the two commandments are plain when we remember that the children of God, the Church now live, as it were, in the space in between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and in the time of the forbearance of God and their own watching and waiting. In effect they live in two times and worlds. And in both of these their one undivided existence is claimed absolutely by God, subjected to His command and engaged to obedience. There can be no question of any other Lord but God claiming our love, or of any other object but God wanting to be loved. But the love of the children of God corresponds to their twofold existence in two times and worlds. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ have taken place. On this basis they are already members and participants of the new world created by Him, by faith in the manifestation of the Son of God in and with the human nature which He has adopted, in and with the flesh which He has united to His deity and glorified by His power. Represented by Him, peccatores iusti, in His person they are already assembled before the throne of God, citizens of His everlasting kingdom, participators in eternal life. They are in Christ; and it is in the totality of this their hidden being, which is none other than their actual human and creaturely existence here and now, that in the way described they are put under the commandment to love God, to seek after the One who has first sought and found them. But by virtue of the coming but not yet visible lordship of Jesus Christ, in faith in His coming, comforting themselves with the promise of the forgiveness of sins, given in the Word made flesh for all flesh, they always stand in need of comfort and warning of this promise, because although the former time and world are past they still lie, indeed are, behind them. They have to wait and watch for their Lord as iusti peccatores. They have to serve Him in the relationships, connexions and orderings of a reality which has, of course, been overthrown and superseded by His resurrection, but not yet visibly abolished and replaced by His second coming, in the space between the times, where it doth not yet appear what they shall be. The “walk” in the light in face of darkness, and in this visible pilgrimage in all its hope and peril, which is simply the totality of their actual human and creaturely activity here and now, God has placed them under the commandment to love their neighbour.[1]

If you are familiar with ‘Apocalyptic theology’ you will recognize those sorts of themes embedded in this passage from Barth; and if you’re not, then just know you’ve been exposed to what is currently being called apocalyptic theology.

As we contemplate this space between the death and resurrection of Christ, and think that into what Barth is referring us to in regard to the space between resurrection and ascension, I think this provides us with rich and deep theological space for thinking about what it means to be living in the now and looking forward to the not yet; even as we live from the not yet. To love God and neighbor, as Barth presses, ought to be characteristic of living in-between. It is this character that bears witness to the reality of God’s life as our life; as we participate in and from the eternal Life that is shaped by its self-giveness, as it looks to the other as the ground of its unity. Here we can typify Easter-love as we live from the well-spring of that love as it is given power and shape through the resurrection and exaltation of humanity therein. An exaltation of humanity that is given its greatest orientation as it understands its whence as that is situated and ‘hidden’ in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; as the human who makes us human as He re-conciles us to the ordered life that God has always intended for us. That order is to love the other.

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. –Colossians 3.1-4

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” –Matthew 22.34-40

 

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2 §18: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 211-12.

A Critique of American Christianity with Reference to Charles Taylor and Karl Barth: The Emergence of Deism as an American Folk Religion

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the religion that Christian sociologist, Christian Smith identifies as the prominent religion of most Americans who claim to be, or in fact are nascent or cultural Christians. We might reduce the catchy language down to one word: Deism. Deism, by definition, entails both moralist and therapeutic; but we can understand why Smith would give us this amplification—for both rhetorical and descriptive reasons. Even so, I think it would be good to expand upon what Deism actually is. Without getting into its history too much (because of space constraints), I thought it would be instructive to allow Charles Taylor to give us further insight into just what Deism is, and even more significantly, how it functions as an ‘opiate,’ of sorts, for so many of us in the affluent North American context. Taylor writes at length:

But with the fourfold eclipse, the very notion that God has purposes for us beyond fulfilling his plan in the world, equated with our good, begins to fade. Worship shrinks to carrying out God’s goals (= our goals) in the world. So element (2) becomes weaker and weaker.

As to element (1), this was expressed principally in terms of a doctrine of grace. This was seconded in lay ethics, like neo-Stoicism, by a sense that the power to impose order on self and world is God’s power in us, which we have to recognize and nurture. With growing confidence, reflected in the new harmonious, economic-centred order, neither grace nor the nurture of God’s power in us seem all that indispensable. Space has been created for a shift, in which the power to order will be seen as purely intra-human.

 It is true that on the Deist view, God can also help us in another way. The very contemplation of his goodness in his works inspires us, and energizes us to do his will.

Thus as the calm and most extensive determination of the soul towards the universal happiness can have no other centre of rest and joy than the original independent omnipotent Goodness; so without the knowledge of it, and the most ardent love and resignation to it, the soul cannot attain to its most stable and highest perfection and excellence. [Frances Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy, p. 217]

The strength that this can impart to us is not negligible, and perhaps most people will recognize the need for some source like this. But having got this far, it is not clear why something of the same inspiring power cannot come from the contemplation of the order of nature itself, without reference to a Creator. And this idea has recurred in exclusive humanisms.

And so exclusive humanism could take hold, as more than a theory held by a tiny minority, but as a more and more viable spiritual outlook. There needed two conditions for its appearance: the negative one, that the enchanted world fade; and also the positive one, that a viable conception of our highest spiritual and moral aspirations arise such that we could conceive of doing without God in acknowledging and pursuing them. This came about in the ethic of imposed order (which also played an essential role in disenchantment), and in an experience with this ethic which made it seem possible to rely exclusively on intra-human powers to carry it through. The points at which God had seemed an indispensable source for this ordering power were the ones which began to fade and become invisible. The hitherto unthought became unthinkable.[1]

Clearly, Taylor has other previous context he is referring to; with his reference to his points (1) and (2). Because it is too lengthy to elaborate on all that, for our purposes, we will press onto engaging what I did in fact share from him.

I think what stands out most clearly is the idea that in a world that is disenchanted—a major theme in Taylor’s work—of a world that is inhabited or suffused with the splendor of a mighty and benevolent Creator God; the world is still in need of some sense of Divine Transcendence. As Taylor helpfully underscores for us, when the personal Christian God is abandoned, the vacuum left is filled by collapsing ‘Him’ into the human-spirit writ large. Herein people still have a sense that in the after-life, based upon their own ethical imaginations and determinations, they will be rewarded with or despoiled of anything good and lively. But here, in the here-and-now, in this ultra-immanetized world, we are the divine sparks of all that can be good and holy; we just need to appeal to our inner-positive-resources, and usher in peace and well being into the world.

What Taylor describes as Deism can come in both hard and soft forms. What we get in the Christian version of Deism is the soft form. When Christians abandon sound orthodox doctrine what they must turn to is themselves; albeit, they no longer have the capacity to distinguish between themselves and the one they call Jesus Christ. It is in this framework that so called moralistic therapeutic deism takes on a life of its own; with a liturgy of nationalist and moralist folkisms in tow.

Interestingly, we have a case study of this in the history, not too far back, in the early to mid-20th century among the German Christians. Karl Barth, per John Webster’s analysis, noted this fall into a sort of deism among the nationalist fervor that took hold of so many Germans in the post WWI context. There was a wily fear afoot in the Weimar Republic that caused even the Christians to turn inward, and engage in this sort of collapsing of God into the inner-recesses of their own will to power; in their own capacity to determine what was right and wrong. Webster notes with reference to Barth’s moral theology:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.[2]

Interesting that Barth’s primary referent was liberal Protestantism; interesting because I think this can equally apply to what counts as conservative evangelicalism today—and yes Mainlinism, and other religious iterations in the West as well. But Barth’s critique of his own German/Swiss context fits well with what Taylor is identifying for us as the Deist project. A project wherein God and the enchanted world He gives us is pushed to the side, and the disenchanted world takes its place with the primacy of the indomitable human spirit as its center.

It seems undeniable to me that this sort of ‘spirituality’ is the dominant one, even and maybe especially among the evangelical churches. It isn’t for lack of good intention, but lack of good, sound, orthodox doctrine among the churches that has led to this vacuum. Not to dog-pile on the conservatives, we see this Deistic impulse shaping so called Progressive Christianity just as surely; most likely because they operate from a shared anthropological and intellectual heritage. No matter its level of overt exposure, Deism as a powerful source of moral inflection in the world, as far as I can see, is only gaining speed. It can be corrected, but this will only come as Christians come to a point of ‘repentant thinking.’ But will they? In order for repentant thinking to occur, it is required that sound theological teaching is given. But I don’t see this, in the main, occurring in the churches. People are largely being fed a pabulum of individualistic spirituality that majors on the self, and minors on God. True, we do see a resurgence of Reformed theology; but I’d contend, at root, that its understanding of grace and election only plays into the sort of Deism that Taylor (and Barth) describe.

 

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap of Harvard University Press, 2007), 233-34 kindle.

[2] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6.

The Miraculous Production of Barth’s Church Dogmatics

Photo copyright of the Karl Barth-Archiv in Basel, Switzerland

I have read pertinent volumes of Barth’s Church Dogmatics through the years, but as of late I’ve decided to plow through the whole thing; and so I am. But something continues to bother my conscience as I read ole’ Uncle Karl. You know what I am referring to, the thing that got me into hot water about a year and a half ago; the Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum affair. As I am reading Barth’s CD it actually causes me some serious dissonance. Knowing that he was living with CVK in his shared house, with wife and kids present, it utterly blows my mind that he still had the wherewithal to produce what he did, theologically, in his Dogmatics. I mean have you read it? It is mind-blowing. I mean it is mind blowing in light of this sinful unrepentant relationship he lived in all the days of his life. Have you read his CD? It is chalked full with clarity and insight vis-à-vis the evangelical reality of Christ’s life. He talks deeply about sin, repentance, and the need for living a mortified life before God; particularly because of our ongoing sinfulness. He refers to the blindness caused by the idolatry making of religions, and the constant need for repentance in order for us to see God in His fullness in Self-revelation in Christ.

This is what causes me some serious dissonance. It is reported that CVK herself was so intimately involved with the production of the CD that she may well have written large sections of it herself; if not that, her thoughts at least are intricately interwoven throughout its symphonic presentation. So, it isn’t just Karl it is Charlotte; both of them living in unrepentant sin, and yet able to produce what they did in the Church Dogmatics. The CD, in light of this, seems like the ultimate expression of God’s Grace shone brightly over Barth and Kirschbaum. This is the only explanation I can arrive at. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that what they produced is inspired by God, per se. What I am saying is that it seems that what they in fact did produce so reflects the wondrous truths of who God is in Christ, that its gravitas cannot be denied. What I am saying is that in spite of their sinful interloping, in a life-styled fashion, they were able to write something that bears witness to the earth-shattering miraculous reality of the Gospel itself. Indeed, it is as if God was like: Okay, Barth and Kirschbaum, I’m going to use you anyway, in spite of your disobedience before me; that ‘I’ will let what you are attempting to refer to, ‘Me’, to shine throw in spite of your decision to live in a way that is unpleasing to Me. I don’t really know what else to conclude.

I will say, that at points, as I’m reading the CD, I feel some conviction about this; and this is why the dissonance. It is somewhat distracting for me. But at the same moment, there is clarity about the centrality of Christ in Barth’s theologizing that is not present in anyone else’s theology throughout the millennia of Church History; not in the intensive way he worked. So, I guess I’ll continue to read Barth, but only because of who He is witnessing to; and how he somehow is able to do that, even while living in an unrepentant lifestyle. Do we wall sin? Yes. Do we intentionally and self-consciously live in adultery while maintaining ministerial positions in the Church? According to Scripture we shouldn’t be. And in the evangelical world I live in you wouldn’t be allowed to; that’s because of Scripture and its reality in Christ.

 

The Abolition of Religion: And Establishment of the Only True Religion in the Scandal of Particularity Found in Jesus Christ

I received a bit of push-back on a recent post I did on Barth and his understanding of religion as “unbelief.” But let me expand further on where Barth is coming from, I think it will help provide some relief in regard to some misunderstanding relative to where he is coming from. When it comes to Barth it is always helpful to remember the broad strokes he is thinking from. Without keeping these strokes in mind, a prima facie reading of him (i.e. contextless) will inevitably lead many to read him wrongly; and this has happened!

In what we will read from Barth, it will become clear that his understanding of ‘religion’ is informed more broadly by his inchoate doctrine of election and his Christ concentration; both loci that are located in the so called scandal of particularity. We oughtn’t ever approach Barth without bearing his theory of revelation in mind, and how significant that is towards his development of theological conclusions. Again, for Barth, as we all know by now, the Centraldogma of all theological reflection is no other than, Jesus Christ. This is why even his understanding of religion, and the Church therein, is deconstructed and resurrected by God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; for Barth everything comes back to Jesus, and his place in the economy of God’s triune life, in and for us. With this in mind, let’s follow along with Barth as he helps us understand what he thinks ‘true religion’ is constituted by; for Barth, there can be no true religion outwith God’s Self-revelation; and there can be no Self-revelation without Jesus Christ. As such, if there is going to be a true religion, it must be grounded in Revelation; or more pointedly, it must be concentrated in the face of Jesus Christ. This, for Barth, is where true religion obtains; maybe this will help bring understanding in regard to Barth’s belief that all religion is unbelief: other than the true religion that is necessarily grounded in God’s Self-revelation in Christ.

The preceding expositions have established the fact that we can speak of “true” religion only in the sense in which we speak of a “justified sinner.”

Religion is never true in itself and as such. The revelation of God denies any religion is true, i.e., that it is in truth the knowledge and worship of God and the reconciliation of man with God. For as the self-offering and self-manifestation of God, as the work of peace which God Himself has concluded between Himself and man, revelation is the truth beside which there is no other truth, over against which there is only lying and wrong. If by the concept of a “true religion” we mean truth which belongs to religion in itself and as such, it is just as unattainable as a “good man,” if by goodness we mean something which man can achieve on his own initiative. No religion is true. It can only become true, i.e., according to that which purports to be and for which it is upheld. And it can become true only in the way in which man is justified, from without; i.e., not of its own nature and being, but only in virtue of a reckoning and adopting and separating which are foreign to its own nature and being, which are quite inconceivable from its own standpoint, which come to it quite apart from any qualifications or merits. Like justified man, religion is a creature of grace. Bur grace is the revelation of God. No religion can stand before it is a true religion. No man is righteous in its presence. It subjects us all to the judgment of death. But it can also call dead men to life and sinners to repentance. And similarly in the wider sphere where it shows all religion to be false it can also create true religion. The abolishing of religion by revelation need not mean only its negation: the judgment that religion is unbelief. Religion can just as well be exalted in revelation, even though the judgment still stands. It can be upheld by it and concealed in it. It can be justified by it, and—we must at once add—sanctified. Revelation can adopt religion and mark it off as true religion. And it not only can. How do we come to assert that it can, if it has not already done so? There is a true religion: just as there are justified sinners. If we abide strictly by that analogy—and we are dealing not merely with an analogy, but in a comprehensive sense with the thing itself—we need have no hesitation in saying that the Christian religion is the true religion.[1]

True Religion for Barth, as noted, is necessarily grounded in the particularity and scandal of God’s in-breaking Life in Jesus Christ. It’s not that Barth doesn’t see that there is a religion here and there—indeed, he sees them everywhere—it’s that Barth (as do I!) rejects constructing a notion of religion from religious phenomena and phenomenological reflection as such.

This should be of no surprise for anyone who knows Barth’s theology; he never veers from his principled commitment to allowing Jesus to regulate all of his theological conclusions in intensive fashion. And for me, this is why I cannot escape Barth; with his warts and all. Indeed, for Barth, as the passage above illustrates, there can be no true religion except for one that is alien and extra nos (‘outside of us’); one that is not something humans can manipulate and control, but a religion that comes from above and determines what it means to stand before God in His genuine freedom of graciousness and love.

With the above considered, it is upon these bases that Barth concludes that the only true religion is the Christian Religion. It is because Christ alone is the only way, truth, and life to God the Father; and it is because only therein, in the esse of God’s Triune Life (which is the esse of all reality) that true anything (inclusive of religion) obtains and finds inherent valuation before the living God of all life and reality.

 

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2 §17: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 127-28.

Scottish Theology as an Antidote to The Gospel Coalition’s Calvinism

The Gospel Coalition’s annual conference is currently underway. I thought, once again, I would repost a post that gets into some material critique of the sort of Federal Calvinism that funds TGC’s theology. It disheartens me that TGC, and other like movements in conservative evangelicalism, is having the sort of impact and reach it is. In this post I identify, through Bell’s work, a distinction even in and among the Federal theologians as that theology was being developed in Scotland and elsewhere. Here’s that post:

Evangelical Calvinism is really a bubbling over of a variety of impetuses from within the history of Reformed theology. We look to the Scottish theology of Thomas Torrance, and the antecedent theology he looks to in the theology of John Calvin and also in the Scottish Kirk from yesteryear. We of course also look to the Swiss theology of Karl Barth towards offering a way forward in constructive ways in regard to where some of the historical antecedents trail off (primarily because they didn’t have the necessary formal and material theological resources available to them to finally make the turn that needed to be made in regard to a doctrine of election and other things).

In an attempt to identify this kind of movement, that has led to where we currently stand as Evangelical Calvinists, let me share from Charles Bell’s doctoral work on the Scottish theology that Torrance himself looked to in his own development as an evangelical Calvinist. Bell has been doing genealogical work with reference to various Scottish theologians, and also with reference to John Calvin, in his book. We meet up with Bell just as he is summarizing the development he has done on what is called the Marrow theology. This was theology that was developed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries by a group of twelve men; they sought to offer critique of the legalistic strain they discerned in the mainstream of Federal or Covenantal theology of their day, and hoped to place a priority of grace over law (which they believed their colleagues, the Federal theologians, had inverted thus providing for a legal faith) in regard to the covenantal system of theology. What Bell highlights though, is that while they discerned and even felt the pastoral problems provided by Federal theology, they themselves still did not have the wherewithal to remove themselves from that system; and so they suffered from a serious tension and irresolvable conflict in regard to the correction they saw needing to be made, and the way to actually accomplish that correction. Bell writes:

Boston and Erskine can only be fully appreciated against the background of 17th century Federal theology and the Marrow controversy. The Black Act of 1720 threatened the very heart of Reformed teaching concerning the nature of God’s grace. See in this context, it becomes highly significant that Boston and Erskine contend for the universal offer of Christ in the gospel, for such an offer is necessary to provide a basis for assurance. Not only do the Marrow men’s contemporary Federalists deny this universal offer, but they also deny that a basis for the assurance of faith is necessary since, according to them, assurance is not of the essence of faith. In light of the legalism which pervaded the Scottish scene, it is highly significant that men, who were themselves Federalists, detected this legalism and contended against it for the unconditional freeness of God’s grace. This they did by rejecting the covenant of redemption and insisting that there is but one covenant of grace, made for us by God in Christ. It is, therefore, a unilateral covenant which is not dependant or conditional upon our acts of faith, repentance, or obedience.

The Marrow men adhered to such doctrine precisely because they believed them to be both biblical and Reformed truths. Yet, because these men were Federal theologians, they were never able finally to break free of the problems engendered by the Federal theology. The Federal doctrines of two covenants, double predestination, and limited atonement undermined much of their teaching. So, for instance, the concept of a covenant of works obliged them to the priority of law over grace, and to a division between the spheres of nature and redemption. The doctrine of limited atonement removed the possibility of a universal offer of Christ in the gospel, and also removed the basis for assurance of salvation. Ultimately such teaching undermines one’s doctrine of God, causing us to doubt his love and veracity as revealed in the person and work of Christ. The Marrow controversy brought these problems to a head, but unfortunately failed to settle them in a satisfactory and lasting way. However, the stage is now set for the appearance of McLeod Campbell, who, like the Marrow men, saw the problems created by Federal Calvinism, but was able to break free from the Federal system, and therefore, to deal more effectively with the problems.[1]

What I like about Bell’s assessment is his identification of a distinction in and among the Federal theologians themselves; the Marrow men represent how this distinction looked during this period of time. And yet as Bell details even these men were not able to finally overcome the restraints offered by the Federal system of theology; it wasn’t until John McLeod Campbell comes along in the 18th century where what the Marrow men were hoping to accomplish was inchoate[ly] accomplished by his work—but he paid a high price, he was considered a heretic by the standards of the mainstream Federal theologians (we’ll have to detail his theology later).

What I have come to realize is that while we can find promising streams, and even certain moods in the history, we will never be able to overcome the failings that such theologies (like the Federal system) offered because they were, in and of themselves, in self-referential ways, flawed. As much as I appreciate John Calvin’s theology I have to critique him along the same lines as Bell critiques the Marrow men here, even while being very appreciative for the nobility of their work given their historical situation and context. This is why, personally, I am so appreciative of Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance); Barth recognized the real problem plaguing all of these past iterations of Reformed theology, it had to do with their doctrine of God qua election. It is something Barth notes with insight as he offers critique of Calvin, in regard to his double predestination and the problem of assurance that this poses (and this critique equally includes all subsequent developments of classical understanding of double predestination):

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

This was the problem the Marrow men needed to address; it is the problem that McLeod Campbell attempted to address with the resources he had available to him; and yet, I conclude that it was only Barth who was finally successful in making the turn towards a radically Christ concentrated doctrine of double predestination and election. With Barth’s revolutionary move here he washed away all the sins of the past in regard to the problems presented by being slavishly tied to classical double predestination and the metaphysics that supported that rubric.

Concluding Thought

This is why I am so against what is going on in conservative evangelical theology today (again, think of the ubiquitous impact and work The Gospel Coalition is having at the church level). The attempt is being made to retrieve and repristinate the Reformed past as that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries in particular; and the retrieval isn’t even of the Marrow men, it is of the theology that the Marrow men, as Federal theologians themselves, understood had fatal problems in regard to a doctrine of God and everything else subsequent. My question is: Why in the world would anybody want to resurrect such a system of theology? There is no theological vitality there; it can only set people up to repeat the history of the past, in regard to the type of Christian spirituality it offered. Indeed, a spirituality that caused people to be overly introspective, and focused on their relationship with God in voluntarist (i.e. intellectualist) and law-like ways (because of the emphasis of law over grace precisely because of the covenant of works as the preamble and definitive framework for the covenant of grace/redemption). People might mean well, but as far as I am concerned they are more concerned with retrieving a romantic idea about a period of history in Protestant theological development—an idea that for some reason they have imbued with sacrosanct sentimentality—rather than being concerned with actual and material theological conclusions. For my money it does not matter what period of church history we retain our theological categories from; my concern is that we find theological grammars and categories that best reflect and bear witness to the Gospel reality itself. Federal theology does not do that!

[1] M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985), 168.

[2] Karl Barth, CD II/2:111. For further development of this critique, with particular reference to John Calvin, see my personal chapter, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the “Faith of Christ,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene: OR, Pickwick Publications, 2017), 30-57.