The “God” of Atheists in the 16th and 17th Centuries: And How the God of the Post Reformed Orthodox Needs Be Radicalized

The early Christians were thought of as atheists by the Graeco-Romans because they rejected the pantheon of the Roman gods; at least, so the story goes. As somewhat of an inversion of that, many of the Post Reformed Orthodox theologians of 16th and 17th century Western Europe believed that anyone who rejected the true and living God revealed and disclosed in Holy Scripture, and in the living Son, Jesus Christ was to be considered an atheist. Personally, as someone who thinks After Barth, I think anyone who rejects the God solely and principially revealed in Jesus Christ is worshipping, as Barth might say, a No-God; in other words, I believe worshipping a concept of God not explicitly based upon God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ makes one an atheist (so this would be concordant with the sentiment of the Post Reformed Orthodox). And beyond all this, to invert maybe even the Post Reformed Orthodox, although not de jure, I would have to consider myself an “atheist” when and if someone says they worship a concept of God and godness that is based upon human discovery, philosophical discurvity and projection in regard to the god they worship; even if that God is baptized in the name of Jesus. In other words, I would consider myself an atheist when and if even Christians, whoever they might be, base their conception of God upon the god of the philosophers; a concept of God not based purely on the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ (cf. John 1.18).

Getting back to the Post Reformed Orthodox, though; they had a classification of certain types of “atheists,” and one that I find interesting. There is stuff presented in their approach, respectively, that I find constructively helpful towards thinking about this topic with particular reference to the role that “sin” and hamartiology play relative to people’s perceptions of “God.” There are things in the Post Reformed Orthodox’s thinking that I find pretty attractive towards thinking about what atheism might entail, it is just that I don’t really think the Post Reformed Orthodox went far enough; I think they end up relying too much on a philosophical conception of godness in order to conceive of God—particularly when we start thinking about God’s ousia ‘being’ or essendi ‘essence’. Richard Muller offers a helpful detailing of how all of this looked in the development of Post Reformed Orthodoxy; here we pick up Muller as he has just been discussing the role that “proofs” for God’s existence have or have not played in some of the Reformed Orthodox’s thinking. Muller writes:

Although the proofs are posed “against the atheists,” the Reformed orthodox frequently argue that there are no “atheists properly so called,” or, at least, very few. The Reformed orthodox writers typically understood “atheist” in a very broad sense, designed to include all who denied the true God. “There are many kinds of Atheists,” wrote Bucanus, for some entirely deny the existence of God, others worship “feigned gods,” and still others acknowledge the “true God,” but not “as he is,” rather, “as they fancie him to be.” Given this broad sense of the term, the Reformed tend also to direct their arguments against the majority of atheists, namely, against those who do not deny God absolutely, but whose understandings of God are in need of major revision. The homiletical and hortatory dimensions of the Reformed proofs is particularly clear in Charnock’s initial identifications of atheists and atheism. The problem of atheism is not primarily philosophical but hamartiological: “though some few may choke in their hearts the sentiments of God and his providence, and positively deny them, yet there is something of a secret atheism in all, which is the foundation of the evil practices in their lives, not an utter disowning of the being of a God, but a denial or doubting of some of the rights of his nature.”

Whereas, then, there are either no or virtually no “speculative atheists,” those who directly and expressly deny the existence of any superior Being and have absolutely no “sense and belief of deity,” there are many people who have inward doubts concerning the identity of God or may deny to God such attributes or qualities — as providence or justice — that are necessary to any being rightly called God. In addition, they recognize the existence of “practical atheists.” Thus the text of the Psalm (14:1), “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God,” is not a philosophical text but a “description of man’s corruption.” The point resonates strongly with Calvin’s exegesis of the text. Charnock continues:

Practical atheism is natural to man in his corrupt state. It is against nature as constituted by God, but natural, as nature is depraved by man: the absolute disowning of the being of a God is not natural to man, but the contrary is natural; but an inconsideration of God, or misrepresentation of his nature, is natural to man as corrupt. A secret atheism, or a partial atheism, is the spring of all the wicked practices of the world.

Charnock points out that the “fool” speaks in his “heart,” not in his “head”:

Men may have atheistical hearts without atheistical heads. Their reasons may defend the notion of a Deity, while their hearts are empty of affection to the Deity.

They have “unworthy imaginations” concerning God, engage in “debasing the Divine nature” through idolatry, and exalt human nature unduly. If we are the question of who these practical atheists are, the probable answer is the “cultured despisers of religion” in Charnock’s day, many of whom fit the description of Viret’s “Deists.”[1]

In sentiment there is much to be commended here, in my mind. The issue always, in my view, comes down to an issue of the heart. People have been so polluted by sin noetically that left to themselves and their own sensuous desires they will always and only fashion God in their own image (e.g. Feuerbach comes to mind). People’s wills are in such bondage (i.e. Luther), they are so overcome with other affections (other than affection for God) that all they will “freely” choose is themselves; as such the only God they can discover based upon this weeded ground is one that they manufacture themselves (i.e. think of Calvin’s ‘idol factory’ or simply of the idolatry referred to over and over again in the Old Testament with reference to the nations, but also of course with reference to God’s own covenant people, the nation of Israel).

I think this sentiment in the Post Reformed Orthodox is all well and good, but I just don’t think it goes far enough. Although we need to be sensitive to what they had available to them in their own period of theological and ecclesiastical history, my contention is that they rely much too much on conceptions of God that are correlatively based on the god of the philosophers (like Plato and Aristotle). In other words I don’t think they were radical enough in regard to their doctrine of God; as such the concept of God they offer, often, is too laden down with philosophical accretions that actually emphasize things about God’s Self-presentation that end up distorting who God actually is relative to his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ (which gets fleshed out say in a system like Federal theology and the attending forensic emphases that come along with that). Contrariwise, Thomas Torrance, as he describes Barth’s Christ concentrated approach to theology writes this:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[2]

The Post Reformed Orthodox need help relative to their doctrine of God. They were heading in the right direction, in principle, but they hadn’t developed enough to the point where they could write something like TF Torrance does here.

Conclusion

I’m leaving many loose ends in this post, but I will have to say I agree with the sentiment of the Post Reformed Orthodox in regard to how they thought of atheism; particularly as they focus in on the impact that sin has on that. But in the end, here in the 21st century, with further theological developments that we can now benefit from (as illustrated by Barth and Torrance), I think the orthodox need to be radicalized. Insofar as they aren’t I would have to claim an “atheist” status in regard to the God they offer up when and if they present us with a God based upon an under-evangelized metaphysic and conception of God resulting in emphases that distort who God has revealed himself to be in his Self-revelation and exegesis in Jesus Christ.

It is ironic, I think, many Christians end up becoming “atheists,” but they aren’t really even rejecting an actual conception of God who is based purely upon his Self-revelation in Christ. Instead they are rightfully rejecting a conception of God who is based too much on a philosophical conception and thus human projection of God wherein the type of spirituality on offer is one that is driven by a performance based quid quo pro type of spirituality; of the type that no thinking and self-reflective person can actually bear up under for too long (just ask Martin Luther about that!).

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Divine Essence and Attributes, Volume Three (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 179-80.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

 

Christ as the first-fruits and first-born from the death of death: Reflecting Further Upon Sin and Its ‘Sensuous Origin’

As I continue to get into researching ‘sin’ I am doing so through reading, in part, stuff from Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck. I am reading a section he has from his Dogmatics, Vol.3, called The Origin of Sin; how fitting. I wanted to share a section from him which he entitles The Enigma of Sin’s Origin; in it he gets into how folks have attempted to understand what in fact sin is, and tellingly, where it is generated from, from within the human being (if it is). He focuses in, in this section, on the theory that sin is somehow generated by the sensuous; as such, if this is the case the remedy would be some form of self-deprecating, self-denying asceticism. Note:

The Enigma of Sin’s Origin

[312] The question of the origin of evil, second to that of existence itself, is the greatest enigma of life and the heaviest cross for the intellect to bear. The question, Whence is evil? has occupied the minds of humans in every century and still waits in vain for an answer that is more satisfactory than that of Scripture. Insofar as philosophy has taught us anything significant in this matter, it is, broadly speaking, a strong proof for the scriptural truth that this world is inexplicable without a fall. All the great thinkers, even if they were ignorant of Genesis 3 or rejected it as myth, have, despite themselves, given tacit or explicit support to this simple story. And insofar as philosophy looked for a solution to the problem in another direction, it has gotten off the track and sadly gone astray. This applies first of all to the Pelagian explanation of sin, the many objections to which have been touched on above and will come up at length in our discussion of the essence and propagation of sin. But it applies further to all the systems that trace evil not to a creaturely act of will but to the nature of humanity, the world, or God.

In the first place, sin cannot be inferred from the sensual nature of the human race. If that were the explanation, sin certainly would always have a sensual or carnal character. But this is far from being always the case. There are also spiritual sins, sins of a demonic nature, such as pride, envy, hatred, enmity against God, which, though less visible, are absolutely no less serious than the sins of carnality; and these cannot be explained by sensuality, any more than the existence of fallen angels can be explained on this basis. If sins originated from humanity’s sensual nature, one would certainly expect that they would be most vigorous and numerous in the early years of life, and that to the degree that the mind became more developed it would also exert firmer control over it and finally overcome it altogether. But experience tells a very different story. To the degree that people grow up, sin—also sensual sin—has a stronger grip on them. It is not the child but the young man and the adult male who are frequently enslaved by their lusts and passions; and mental development is often so little able to curb sin that it tends rather to make available the means of seeking the satisfaction of one’s desire on a larger scale and in more refined ways. And even when at a later stage in life the sensual sins have lost their dominance, they still secretly stay on in people’s hearts as desires or make way for others that, though more spiritual in nature, are no less appalling. Accordingly, if this explanation of sin in terms of sensuality is meant in earnest, it should result in seeking release by suppressing the flesh; but it is precisely the history of asceticism that is best calculated to cure us of the error that sin can be overcome in that fashion. People take their hearts with them when they enter a monastery, and from the heart arise all sorts of sins and iniquities.[1]

Clearly from a biblical and properly oriented theological perspective this explanation falls quite short; as Bavinck himself develops. But it is interesting to see how people attempt to philosophize about things, particularly sin.

What if sin has so incapacitated the human intellect, what if the so called noetic effects of sin have so savaged the human’s capacity to self-reflect properly that they are left aimless in their search for attempting to penetrate the mystery of the human situation and pollution? One thing that is clear, even for unregenerate minds and hearts, is that people can look around and know that things are eschew; radically so! But even this, according to Scripture is not a ‘natural’ perception; according to John 16 the Holy Spirit convicts the world of: sin, righteousness, and judgment. In other words, without the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and the attending work of the Holy Spirit, there is no access to the real human condition; there is no access to the actual problem which according to Jesus resides in the deceptive nature of our corrupted hearts (relative to their orientation to God).

What the Bavinck quote should illustrate for us is that sin, human depravity and pollution is an unknowable ‘quantity’; it is a surd of inaccessible magnitude. As Barth orients this discussion, we cannot even begin to know what sin is apart from Christ, and God’s holiness on display therein; and even at this entry point sin remains a surd, an enigma. God in Christ did not come to explain sin’s origin, or even its general whereabouts, he came to destroy it and put it to death (cf. Rom 8). In light of the holiness of God revealed in Christ, yes, sin is amplified, it is given a gravitas as we observe the depths and reach it took for it to be dispelled; i.e. God’s personal enfleshment. What the coming of God in Christ shows about sin is that human beings, autonomous as sin would have them to be, are in no place to deal with its corroding and parasitic power. It takes the very ‘being’ ousia of Godself in the person (hypostasis) of Jesus Christ, the eternal Logos, and ground of all reality to penetrate into the marrow of sin’s possessive non-being and nothingness to reverse its beguiling trajectory; to do nothing short of re-creating all things, with Christ as the first-fruits and first-born from the death of death (per John Owen also cf. Col. 1.15ff; I Cor. 15; II Cor. 5.17).[2]

 

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Origin of Sin, accessed 03-16-2017.

[2] This paragraph is largely and loosely inspired by a Barthian and Torrancean perspective on a Christologically concentrated hamartiology and doctrine of creation/re-creation.

Was the Cartesian, Pierre Poiret, Post Reformed Orthodoxy’s Version of Karl Barth?

I must admit, I am a bit surprised I have never seen Karl Barth (or Thomas Torrance) compared to 17th century “Reformed” thinker Pierre Poiret; at least by those who are in the know in regard to the history of ideas in the development of Post Reformed Orthodox theology. I mean, yes, Barth is often called a heretic by contemporary after-Westminster theologians of today, but they never really get that specific; it’s just like an appeal to their people, and an announcement to their choir. As I am continuing my trek through Richard Muller’s four volumes (apparently vols. 5–8 are coming out in 2018), in volume three I came upon this following reference to, indeed, Pierre Poiret. I find it interesting, because the way Muller describes Poiret’s Cartesian inspired theology, relative to knowledge of God and what that implicates, one might conclude that Poiret could serve as the poster-boy and precedent for Barth’s later and ostensible heretical theology (at least as many of the classically Reformed of today think of Barth i.e. largely those who follow Van Til’s influence out of Westminster Theological Seminary in both Philly and California). Let me share the quote, and you can take a look and see what you think. I’m sharing this also for future reference purposes. Here’s Muller on Poiret:

An example of the impact of Cartesian thinking on an entire system of nominally Reformed theology is Poiret’s L’Oeconomie divine, ou système universal (1687): in its subtitle, the work indicates  that it demonstrates and explains the origin of Christianity and offers metaphysically certain statements of the “principles and truths of nature and grace, philosophy and theology, reason and faith, natural morality and Christian religion” together with a resolution of “the great and thorny difficulties of predestination, freedom, universal redemption, and providence.” Here we actually have a theology that begins with the problem of Pyrrhonistic skepticism, asserts the certitude of self-existence on the ground of the Cartesian cogito, and proceeds from the existence of certainty to the existence of God. From these arguments, Poiret passes on to a discussion of “the fundamental idea of the divine essence” and “the nothingness of ideas by themselves,” to a positing of “the origin of ideas through the decree of God in his discretionary understanding.” The eternal decree, according to Poiret, is the firm resolve of God “to give birth to ideas in his understanding, and beyond himself to things corresponding to his ideas.” The doctrine of the Trinity is to be understood by inference from the tripartite character of the soul — with the Father as “infinitely living Thought,” the Son as “image” and “light,” and the Spirit as “joy” and activity. The problem of predestination  is resolved in the declaration “that all those who have and who will participate in human nature are all predestined by god to life eternal” on the ground that the god who is infinite thought and who, in the execution of his decree, has realized his own ideas in the finite order, could not decree to create the most admirable creature in his own image and then consign it to eternal death. The irony of Poiret’s formulation is that this sole “decretal” system produced in the seventeenth century rests on Cartesian, not Aristotelian, principles and deduces apokatastasis from the eternal counsel of God! And, by Reformed orthodox standards, Poiret’s decretal Cartesianism had certainly produced heresy.[1]

Obviously there isn’t going to be univocal correspondence between Poiret and Barth, but there is enough there that I am very surprised that some of the proponents of Reformed orthodox theology of today haven’t ever pulled this type of Poiret card out when they are lambasting Barth as a heretic.

If anyone knows of Barth’s actualism, being-in-becoming theology you might see some similar contours of thought between Poiret and Barth, at least in tone and trajectory; particularly when it comes to predestination and its resolution in a Christian universalism (e.g. apokatastasis)—even though Barth rejected universalism as he believes it challenges God’s freedom. Insofar as Anselm’s ontological argument helped to fuel Descartes’ thought, as well as Barth’s, we can also see this in Muller’s portrayal of Poiret’s theology; maybe another point of contact between the respective trajectories. Barth’s theology is also typically aligned with the existentialism of his modern day; in Muller’s description of Poiret’s thinking, we see a type of that in his trajectory in conformity with his own period.

In the end, Barth was not a Cartesian, he was not a Kantian dualist, nor a Hegelian dialecticist (even if the latter two were reified by Barth under the pressure of God’s Self revelation in Jesus Christ). As George Hunsinger has rightfully noted, Barth followed a Chalcedonian Pattern in all of his thinking where Christ was the key and principial reality by which all else was regulated in his theological œuvre.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Divine Essence and Attributes, Volume Three (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 125.

A Testimony About Barth’s Impact, The Free Church, and the Authority of Holy Scripture

Here is something I wrote some time ago, but its spirit or sentiment remains the same for me. If I were to rewrite this post now it would probably wouldn’t sound the same, but the guts of it would still be the same.

As of late, I have been engaging with ideas surrounding ecclesial authority, biblical authority, tradition, sola scriptura, and ecclesiology in general. The reality that comes through to me, once and once again, is that I am simply a Bible believing, Bible reading, Bible fellowshipping Christian.

For many, the above is too naïve or simple; for some, there is a longing or need to be part of a lineage that they perceive as genetic, unbroken, successive, and thus authoritative. I don’t really have this need. Sure, yes, indeed, I want to see myself as part of the body of Christ and God’s people that has stretched the boundaries of salvation history; but I don’t have this need to see God so conflated, so collapsed with His work in His church, in His people, that I need, then, to identify with a group that claims to be the embodiment and concrete reality of this kind of collapse of God (with His authority embedded into this collapsed state of ecclesial affairs). I believe God’s people are everywhere, everywhere where Christ by the Spirit is. I believe the true church of Christ is both visible and invisible; and that the church’s esse or essence is in God’s life of Triune relation itself—and so I don’t think the Church of Jesus Christ (not latter day saints) has an address or country code (like next to the Tiber River in Rome and Vatican City).

And so, given the above, it is probably not very surprising that I am a Free church evangelical. And now this gets even more personal, and less critical (maybe even pious to some). I became a Christian at an early age. I walked with the Lord for years growing up. I became lukewarm out of high school. The Lord got a hold of me through some very hard circumstances a few years out of high school. I began to walk closely with the Lord as a result of the crises that were introduced into my life out of high school (graduated from high school in 1992). And what this meant for me was an obsessive determination to read, read, and reread Scripture (which led to further Bible and theological training in a formal way in the following years to come). And this is still true for me today. I had a real and existential need to be ministered to as a result of the crises that were introduced into my life back in and around 1995. The only thing that brought peace to my mind back then (and still!) was to be ensconced, entrenched, and saturated in Holy Scripture; it was the only place that I could genuinely encounter God’s first Word, Jesus Christ. It was the only place where I could find rest, and hope  in someone who obviously loved me and cared for me beyond measure.

My point in sharing the above is to highlight and deepen a little how I might be understood and perceived. It might explain why I like Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance) so much. What I have finally found in someone like Karl Barth, is a Protestant and evangelical theologian who provides grammar to my long lost and wandering theological feelings. He provides an imaginative and creative (which are both good things) way to think about God’s Word and scripture, and how these two things (along with the proclaimed ‘Word’) coinhere and relate. Most importantly to me, what Barth affirms, is something that I have known for years and years through my own personal experience; and that is, that Scripture is the primary place where God encounters each one of us in his church, in personal, contradictory (to our own thoughts), comforting, convicting, and even endearing ways. And so Scripture for Barth is the norming norm of his mode of operation as a Christian and theologian; as it is and always will be for me. I don’t need any other authority, any other way, than the authority and the way encountered through the pages of Scripture, in all of its particularity and universality. The church gathers around this reality, the church does not possess this reality (Jesus), but Jesus possesses the church, and inhabits her by the Holy Spirit (by which we inhabit Him, by grace). When we read, hear, and live Scripture together we bear witness to the reality that enlivens each of our steps. I know without this reality, I would be hopelessly lost.

I close now with a quote from Adam Neder on Karl Barth, and Barth’s exemplary appreciation for Holy Scripture as the reality upon which all other churchly thought and decisions must be subordinate:

… while fully conversant with and significantly indebted to the vast resources of the church’s reflection on the person and work of Christ, Barth regarded himself to be primarily accountable to Holy Scripture, not church dogma, and thus asked that his Christology be judged, above all, by its faithfulness to the New Testament presentation of the living Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, one regularly finds Barth justifying a Christological innovation with the argument that the New Testament depiction of Christ requires it (or something like it) and that the older categories are inadequate to bear witness to this or that aspect of his existence. In other words, and quite simply, Barth understood himself to be free to do evangelical theology — free, as he put it, to begin again at the beginning. And this approach, it seems to me, is one that evangelicals have every reason to regard with sympathy rather than suspicion.[1]

 

[1] Adam Neder, History n Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union, eds. McCormack and Anderson, 150.

 

What is a Metaphysic? And Do I as a “Barthian” or “Torrancean” Have One?

I just attended the regional meeting of the Pacific Northwest’s Evangelical Theological Society. I was able to meet up with a friend of mine there, Tim, a great brother in Christ who is currently working on his PhD in Systematic Theology under, now, the supervision of Katherine Sonderegger (previously it was under John Webster, before his “untimely” death). We had a chance to attend a couple of papers together, and after one of them, a paper on Thomas Aquinas’s Hylomorphism, Tim asked me a question about my own metaphysical commitments. Tim asked me if I even have a “metaphysic” given my tutelage by guys like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. Tim understands how I disdain substance metaphysics, which was all the more elevated, and reinforced once again by sitting in on this paper on hylomorphism. It’s a good and fair question.

I struggled a bit in responding to Tim, I’ve never really had anyone ask me point blank what my metaphysics actually are. This begs the question in some ways though, what is a metaphysic? Peter van Inwagen over at the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy helps us answer this:

The Word ‘Metaphysics’ and the Concept of Metaphysics

The word ‘metaphysics’ is notoriously hard to define. Twentieth-century coinages like ‘meta-language’ and ‘metaphilosophy’ encourage the impression that metaphysics is a study that somehow “goes beyond” physics, a study devoted to matters that transcend the mundane concerns of Newton and Einstein and Heisenberg. This impression is mistaken. The word ‘metaphysics’ is derived from a collective title of the fourteen books by Aristotle that we currently think of as making up Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Aristotle himself did not know the word. (He had four names for the branch of philosophy that is the subject-matter of Metaphysics: ‘first philosophy’, ‘first science’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘theology’.) At least one hundred years after Aristotle’s death, an editor of his works (in all probability, Andronicus of Rhodes) titled those fourteen books “Ta meta ta phusika”—“the after the physicals” or “the ones after the physical ones”—the “physical ones” being the books contained in what we now call Aristotle’s Physics. The title was probably meant to warn students of Aristotle’s philosophy that they should attempt Metaphysics only after they had mastered “the physical ones”, the books about nature or the natural world—that is to say, about change, for change is the defining feature of the natural world.

This is the probable meaning of the title because Metaphysics is about things that do not change. In one place, Aristotle identifies the subject-matter of first philosophy as “being as such”, and, in another as “first causes”. It is a nice—and vexed—question what the connection between these two definitions is. Perhaps this is the answer: The unchanging first causes have nothing but being in common with the mutable things they cause. Like us and the objects of our experience—they are, and there the resemblance ceases. (For a detailed and informative recent guide to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, see Politis 2004.)

Should we assume that ‘metaphysics’ is a name for that “science” which is the subject-matter of Aristotle’s Metaphysics? If we assume this, we should be committed to something in the neighborhood of the following theses:

  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is “being as such”
  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is the first causes of things
  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is that which does not change[1]

At least we can quickly realize that I am not alone in struggling to not only define what a metaphysic actually is, but also, in light of that, why it would be hard, personally, for me to answer that question about myself and my own commitments. But it is still a good and fair question, particularly since I so often “critique” what has come to be called substance metaphysics (we will have to explore, at a later date, what in fact that all entails particularly).

The thing that makes it very hard for me to answer this question is that I claim to be, and I am committed to revelational theology; a “discipline” that in many ways is at least two steps removed from the definition we have before us, in regard to “metaphysics”, offered up by van Inwagen. 1) I only start my thinking after Deus dixit, ‘God has spoken’; 2) I don’t attempt to think about ‘being’ or ousia in the philosophical ways that Aristotle has ostensibly “discovered” as he supposedly penetrated the meta-physical through the powers of his intellect and wit. Now, as we observe the definition by van Inwagen it becomes exceedingly tempting to quickly correlate what Aristotle was talking about with what is revealed about the Christian God; i.e. as an UnMoved Mover, or even more minimally as the First-causer of every other subsequent and thus contingent cause in the created order.

But this isn’t who I think about, or talk to in the heavenlies, instead I think about and talk to the God who has always already and eternally been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The God I know as a Christian is strictly based, not on his discoverability by human reflection on physical and metaphysical nature, but instead upon the Self-revelation of the only living God in Jesus Christ. As Emil Brunner has pointed out the type of ‘being’ Aristotle speaks of could never nor would ever ‘reveal’ himself because that type of autonomous being needs no, nor desires any type of ‘personal’ interaction; since by definition this ‘being’ is impersonal and turned in on itself as a singularity and monad (that’s a very rough paraphrase of Brunner).[2] Even so, Christians since the beginning have felt compelled to search for a grammar to attempt to articulate God in intelligible and communicative ways. They have even looked to the Greeks to help supply that grammar, but they did so critically, and as Peter Leithart has noted somewhere[3], in a way that we might say they “evangelized metaphysics.” Myk Habets, my evangelical Calvinist colleague-in-arms wrote this in the past, something quite instructive for or purposes here (in extenso):

… When medieval theology adopted Aristotelian philosophy the Greek notion of God as impassible and immutable was also adopted. In this way Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover became associated with the God of the Scriptures. However, in Patristic theology immutability and impassibility, as applied to God, were not associated with these philosophical ideas but were actually a challenge to it. It is true that God is not moved by, and is not changed by, anything outside himself, and that he is not affected by anything or does not suffer from anything beyond himself. But this simply affirms the biblical fact that God is transcendent and the one who created ex nihilo. What the Fathers did not mean is that God does not move himself and is incapable of imparting motion to what he has made. It does not mean that God is devoid of passion, of love, mercy and wrath, and that he is impassibly and immutably related to our world of space and time in such a way that it is thrown back upon itself as a closed continuum of cause and effect.

I grant that patristic theology was tempted constantly by the thrust of Greek thought to change the concepts of impassibility and immutability in this direction, but it remained entrenched within the orbit of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the living God who moves himself, who through his free love created the universe, imparting to its dynamic order, and who through the outgoing of his love moves outside of himself in the incarnation.

This is the God who was not always Creator but became Creator. This implies the notion that even in the life of God there is change. Nor was God eternally incarnate, for in Jesus Christ he became what he was not without ceasing to be what he was. This teaching altered the whole concept of God, of his Being and Act, in the early centuries of our era. T.F. Torrance sees this doctrine being clearly articulated first by Athanasius and then in our own day by Karl Barth in his account of the Being of God in his Act, and of the Act of God in his Being, inseparably bound up with the transcendent freedom of God in his love. In fact, this principle that God is revealed in his Being and Act and Act and Being is one of the principle tenets of both Barth and Torrance’s theological work.[4]

So there is an appeal to the “language” of the Philosophers, even when it comes to ‘being,’ but that appeal and deployment in the end becomes transposed by the pressures of God’s Self-revelation to such an extent that its appeal, it can be said, is in a non-correlationist way. In other words, it is not the “philosophy” of Aristotle nor any others that is being given pride of place, but simply the language of ‘being’ so on and so forth that they developed which the Patristics saw as a fitting vehicle for helping to “grammarize” genuinely Christian discourse about God. Was the temptation always present to fall off the wagon and apostatize, as it were, back to the wells of the Philosopher’s philosophy about ‘being’? Yes. But along with Torrance, Barth, and Habets I believe it is possible, as illustrated by Nicaea-Constantinople and the councils they hosted in the 4th century, respectively, to use the language of the Philosopher’s and to do so in the non-correlationist way I have alluded to.[5]

So how does this lengthy exercise (for a blog post) help respond to my friend, Tim’s question which he put to me about metaphysics? In a strict sense I wouldn’t say that I actually do have a “metaphysic” per se? Metaphysics, if we follow van Inwagen’s detailing, definitionally applies to a necessarily philosophical engagement with ‘being’ and ‘first-causes.’ Someone might want to argue that the medieval theologians, in particular, simply extended out what the Patristics attempted to do in their ‘pillaging’ of the Greeks; that they simply were further attempting to re-text the Philosopher’s (particularly Aristotle’s) language and conceptuality under the pressures provided by God’s Self-revelation in Christ. But this is where this all becomes a serious judgment call, and requires some level of discernment. I contend that the medieval theologians, and the Post Reformed orthodox theologians after them, failed at “evangelizing metaphysics,” that instead they allowed the concept of God “discovered” by Aristotle and some of the other Greeks to take privileged place over God’s Self-revelation. As a result, I think we could actually say that the medievals and Post Reformed orthodox actually do have a proper metaphysical approach to God whereas what is offered by Barth, Torrance, and the Patristics more successfully “evangelized metaphysics” to the point that Jesus Christ truly is regulative for all things relative to knowledge of God and ourselves in Christ and Christ in us. That’s my thesis, and it is one I work and live from.

We would be naïve not to mention though that how metaphysics have come to be understood in the modern period is a study unto itself. But in principle, and insofar as Christian theology is concerned, if we are going to use the traditional understanding of “metaphysics” I would have to tell Tim that I don’t really have one; not in the proper philosophical sense, anyway. This may or may not be satisfactory for Tim, but I am positive it won’t be satisfactory for many a Christian philosopher or various classical theistic theologians (such as is instantiated by many contemporary classical Reformed and Arminian theologians). But here I stand in all my secondary naïveté; to appeal to a Barthianism.

 

[1] Peter van Inwagen, Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy, accessed 03-07-17.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949).

[3] His book on Athanasius.

[4] Myk Habets, Originally Posted at My Blog.

[5] Here is a long comment on what correlational and non-correlational entails (this comes from a blog post written by a guy named Troy that I came across and interacted with about ten years or so ago). This is going to be long, but I want to share it in full; the last paragraph is the clincher towards what I’m after in my own point about ‘non-correlation’. Here is Troy (a student, also, of John Webster back in the day):

“Last week, Prof. Webster led the systematic theology students in a discussion of the key terms and concepts of Systematic Theology. Dr. Webster had previously given us a copy of his essay, “Introduction to Systematic Theology” from the Oxford Handbook to Systematic Theology, in order that we might use it as the launching pad for discussion in our seminar. Throughout our time together, we developed more than a few questions concerning the task and method of the systematic theologian, but it was the issue of correlation that perked my interest.

Any systematic treatment of a given theology will undoubtedly lean toward either an internal or external orientation. One will either attempt to answer questions set forth by something or someone outside of the church, or one will attempt to positively profess what the church believes concerning God and the world. No one would doubt that Pannenberg’s Systematics are categorically different from Barth’s Dogmatics. It is my opinion that two principles concerning this division must be explained and concretized in order to fully expose the relationship between these two modes of Systematic Theology: 1) The division is helpful because both orientations are necessary, and 2) the division is gray, for the assumed separation of church and world that is presupposed underneath the dichotomy is fundamentally structured by a certain theological assumption.

First, I will address the positive aspect of the division between correlational and non-correlational theologies. In one sense, the split is obvious. Tillich clearly saw the difference between his own theological endeavors and those of Barth. It is fairly obvious that the rejection of liberal Protestantism by Barth and other post-liberals is precisely a rejection of (at least a specific kind of) correlationism. It is impossible to make sense of this historical movement without such a division. In this way, it is helpful to demarcate between two opposing sides of theology when each has a very different theological telos in view.

In addition, it is also noteworthy that not all correlational theologies fall under the Barthian critique (or the Feuerbachian critique, to be more precise). I do not think it is fair to judge every engagement with systematic theology based upon a self-same principle. It is, in fact, possible for different theologies to have distinctive traits that are geared for a unique purpose. For instance, to argue that Jenson’s Systematics are fundamentally lacking in utility for the church because of their speculative and creative character is to neglect the illocutionary challenge to the church’s lukewarm, de-radicalized view of God that is part of Jenson’s work. Likewise, to dismiss Pannenberg as a “correlationist”, or a “modernist”, similarly neglects its own telos: namely, to bring every area of human thought under the discipline of Christ. A churchly dogmatics (like Prof. Webster’s own) should be judged on the merits of how well it informs and leads the church theologically; a speculative theology should be judged on the merits of how well it challenges the blind spots of the church with the radicality of the gospel; and an apologetical theology should be judged on the merits of how well it engages with the world’s discourse without compromising the content of the gospel. To disregard this charge is to miss the church’s (and theology’s) holistic mission.

In contrast to the utility of Tillich’s dichotomy, I tend to think that the bifurcation between correlational and non-correlational theologies breaks down upon closer scrutiny. It is my opinion that no theology is truly “non-correlational”, no matter how much it wishes to be so. It is simply a MacIntyrean question of “whose correlation?” A critical reading of any theological text will expose the philosophical underpinnings of its claims.”

 My response to Troy at his blog back then was this:

“This is a great post, thank you Troy! So it’s really Christians pillaging the “Barbarians” for grammatical symbols which then are framed by sacred conceptual trajectory? But wouldn’t this then, in the end, truly be non-correlationist . . . and rather “positive,” internal to the Christian self-referential? In other words, if we “take” (like Constantinople did) grammar from one “context,” and “pretext” it within a Christian conceptuality, so that this becomes the new context . . . isn’t the disjunction between the original context, and the new so great that there really isn’t “correlation?”

Troy in the end actually ended up agreeing with me about ‘non-correlation.’

 

From “evangelical” Salvation to Evangelical Salvation

[T]he real advance has obviously been made when we come to the INSTITUTIO of 1559, in which unio cum Christo [union with Christ] has become the common denominator under which Calvin tried to range his whole doctrine of the appropriation of the salvation achieved and revealed in Christ. For now in the Third Book, before he can speak of faith, of conversion and renewal, of the vita hominis christiani, of abnegatio nostri as its sum, of the necessary bearing of the cross, of the relation between this and the future life, then — and only then — of justification, of Christian freedom and prayer, of eternal election as the ultimate presupposition of the whole, and finally of the future resurrection, according to the view attained in 1559 he has first to make it plain how it can come about at all that what God has done for us in Christ, as declared in the Second Book, can apply to us and be effective for us. The answer given in the noteworthy opening chapter of the Third Book is to the effect that it comes about through the arcana operatio Spiritus, which consists in the fact that Christ Himself, instead of being extra nos, outside the man separated from Him and therefore irrelevant to us, becomes ours and takes up His abode in us, we for our part being implanted into Him (Rom. 11:17) and putting Him on (Gal. 3:27).[1]

How much of “Evangelical” theology has missed this point? By “only” viewing Christ as the instrument of salvation; what’s missed is the fact that God in Christ through the Spirit is salvation! Union with Christ becomes the center which all other soteriological concerns should find their orbit. If we hope to be “saved” at all, it will only be because we participate with God through Christ by the Spirit. In this way salvation is understood in personal, relational, trinitarian terms versus the usual “Evangelical” instrumentalist, substantialist, qualitative terms. There is a huge difference between the two approaches. I wonder if you too appreciate the significant weight in this difference of approach and understanding?

[1] Karl Barth CD 4.3.2, 550-51 cited by Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 195.

Barth to the Hungarian Youth of 1948: On Human Freedom

Freedom is such a misunderstood concept, by believers and non-believers alike. To be sure, in the Bible, when human freedom is referred to it is not in reference to some sort of abstract, philosophically conceived idea of ‘free-will’ or some such nonsense; no it is in reference to what it means to truly and genuinely live before God. In our modern/post-modern 21st century we have barthsoldierall become mired down by being so “free” that we haven’t stopped to notice that we actually live in bondage to ourselves. This is precisely what Barth was attacking as he finished up his talk with some Hungarian youth back in the Spring of 1948. He said:

I have almost finished. If your freedom is to be strong and genuine it will have to have a foundation. What was called freedom in the European age now passed collapsed, and was bound to collapse, because for a long time and at an amazingly deep level it had degenerated into a freedom for godlessness and inhumanity—not merely in its secular and evil form but in its religious and moral form too. Do not hesitate to describe and treat anyone as a ‘reactionary’ who attempts to commend this kind of freedom to you under whatever name. Freedom means freedom for God and one’s neighbor. Wherever it is something different from that it is not freedom for responsibility. In the freedom for God and one’s neighbour you will find the right words and instinctively take the right steps and grow into defiance against the idols of yesterday and those of today. You will not become doctrinaires! The New Testament calls this freedom the freedom of the children of God, our freedom in Jesus Christ. Why? Because as true God and true man Jesus Christ has brought God and man together. ‘If the Son shall make you free ye shall be free indeed.’ This Word was also spoken to our generation. We did not understand it very well. Will it be granted to your generation to understand it a little better? May it be granted to you! What is certain is that we the old and you the  youth of today, are members one of another as we listen to the Word.[1]

[1] Karl Barth, Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings 1946–52 (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1954), 61.

Barth’s Admonition to the Millennials and All of Us in the Information-Age: The Danger of ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’

Karl Barth shared this at some talks he gave in both Sarospatak and Budapest in March and April of 1948; some talks to the youth of that day. I was struck by how relevant what he is exhorting the youth (the “millennials”) of his day with; he might as well be talking to our youth—if not all of us in our information age. Barth said:

barthipodA younger generation confronted by so much emptiness will inevitably be tempted to yield to certain fears remote from freedom and responsibility. I should not be advising you well if I did not implore you to resist them. One of them might consist in trying to drown the miseries of the time with as much technics, sport and aesthetic amusement as possible, with all the worldly pleasures that are still available. No one will begrudge you for wanting to make up for long years of darkness by indulging in one or two pastimes of that kind. But see that you do not repeat the error which the younger generation before you certainly made. By over-indulging itself in technics, sport, and aesthetic amusements it developed a state of mind or rather mindlessness in which, through neglecting its responsibilities, it also lost its freedom and fell an easy prey to the slogans and catchwords of the charlatans and dictators.[1]

While Barth is speaking to the “youth” he might as well be speaking to all of us in our techno/info age. The point is to stay vigilant, particularly and especially in light of all the distractions we have before us. Neil Postman wrote his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Barth anticipates that line of thought here in his talk to the Hungarian youth.

[1] Karl Barth, Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings 1946–52 (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1954), 58.

The Bible is not the End, Jesus Is: Reflections on a Distinction Between Paper, Papal, and Jesus

Jesus is the reality. Everything else is in service to him, particularly Holy Scripture. Karl Barth famously had Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece above his desk in his study; this illustrates well what genuinely Christian theology should be all about: Jesus. As Thomas Torrance often highlights Jesus is the res (reality) while Scripture is the signa (symbol), or witness bearer. Indeed each of us as ambassadors of Jesus Christ function, in proclamation, much as Scripture does (although even subordinate to that, in a qualified way), as those who bear witness to the reality of Jesus Christ.[1]

mattiasgrunewaldUnfortunately what has often happened is that what was supposed to be witness to Jesus instead confused themselves with the reality (of Jesus) himself, and absolutized themselves as an end (even if only relatively construed) rather than a means or symbol or witness bearer to the end, Jesus Christ. A fundamental aspect of the Protestant Reformation was to correct this overplay by the Roman Catholic Church, by developing a theology of the Word. Indeed this became known as the ‘Scripture principle,’ and serves as a hallmark of the Protestant-turn as it were. As should be, Scripture, relative to a theory of authority, ascended to its rightful place within Protestantism, but as with all things human, this turn went too far, and replaced  papal with paper; Protestantism, particularly the Post Reformed Orthodox, and the theology that seeks to repristinate that contemporaneously, began to identify Scripture as an absolute end—in other words the ontology of Scripture lost its rightful place, relative to God, and ascended to heights that really only should belong to the reality of all things, Jesus Christ. Emil Brunner explains it this way:

Doctrine, rightly understood, is the finger which points to Him, along which they eye of faith is directed towards Him. So long as faith clings to the “finger”, to the interpretative doctrine, it has not really arrived at its goal; thus it is not yet actually faith. Faith is the encounter with Him, Himself, but it is not submission to a doctrine about Him, whether it be the doctrine of the Church, or that of the Apostles and Prophets. The transference of faith from the dimension of personal encounter into the dimension of factual instruction is the great tragedy in the history of Christianity. The Reformers were right when they rejected the unconditional authority of ecclesiastical doctrine as such; but when the theologians of the Reformation began to believe in a doctrine about Jesus Christ, instead of in Jesus Christ Himself, they lost the best fruit of the Reformation. Reformation theology was right in setting up the Biblical doctrinal authority above the ecclesiastical authority as their norm; but they were wrong, when they made the Biblical doctrine their final unassailable authority, by identifying the Word of God with the word of the Bible. When they did this, in principle, they relapsed into Catholic error; the Protestant faith also became a doctrinal faith, belief in dogma, only now the Biblical dogma took the place of the doctrine of the Church. Protestant orthodoxy arrested the development of the Reformation as a religious awakening.

This distinction between “Jesus Christ Himself” and the doctrine about Him, as final authority, must not, however, be misunderstood in the sense of separation. We do not possess “Jesus Christ Himself” otherwise than in and with the doctrine about Him. But it is precisely this doctrine, without which we cannot have “Him Himself”, which is not Himself, and therefore has only a relative authority. This authority increases the more plainly and clearly as it is connected with Jesus Christ Himself. Thus it is precisely the duty of a genuinely religious—which means, also, a genuinely critical—system of dogmatics to undertake a careful examination of this necessary, obvious connexion between Jesus Christ and the doctrine concerning Him.[2]

There is this constant struggle, well for some, between getting stuck in doctrine and making it to a point where we get beyond the doctrine to its reality in Jesus Christ. As Brunner rightfully leaves off, there is an inextricable linkage between the reality (as absolute) and the witness/doctrine (as relative); but if we are not careful we will fall prey to majoring on the minors, and failing to realize that in the end it has really always already been about a personal encounter with the personal and living God revealed afresh in Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] Think of Barth’s three-fold form of the Word.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God: Dogmatics: Vol. I (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 54.

Emil Brunner and Thomas Torrance on the Difference Between Christian Dogmatics and Apologetics

I just picked up Emil Brunner’s The Christian Doctrine of God, which is his volume one in a series of Christian Dogmatics he has written. While he and I won’t see eye to eye on everything, he’s somebody I can learn from; so expect to hear more from him if you read my blog.

As Brunner starts his Christian Dogmatics out, he of course gives explanation of what Dogmatics actually are. In his giving he offers some profound explication; profound, at least from my emilbrunnerperspective, because he explains what in fact Christian Dogmatics represent. His explanation resonates deeply with me, and should help you all to understand where I am coming from as well; i.e. when you read my blog you should know that I am really never attempting to engage in apologetics, but instead always in the work of Christian Dogmatics. Here is what Brunner writes in this regard:

The intellectual enterprise which bears the traditional title of “dogmatics” takes place within the Christian Church. It is this that distinguishes it from similar intellectual undertakings, especially within the sphere of philosophy, as that is usually understood. Our immediate concern is not to ask whether this particular undertaking is legitimate, useful, or necessary. The first thing we have to say about it is that it is closely connected with the existence of the Christian Church, and that it arises only in this sphere. We study dogmatics as members of the Church, with the consciousness that we have a commission from the Church, and a service to render to the Church, due to a compulsion which can only arise within the Church. Historically and actually, the Church exists before dogmatics. The fact that the Christian Faith and the Christian Church exist, precedes the existence, the possibility, and the necessity for dogmatics. Thus if dogmatics is anything at all, it is a function of the Church.

It cannot, however, be taken for granted that there is, or should be, a science of dogmatics within the Christian Church; but if we reverse the question, from the standpoint of dogmatics it is obvious that we would never dream of asking whether there ought to be a Church, or a Christian Faith, or whether the Christian Faith and the Christian Church have any right to exist at all, or whether they are either true or necessary? Where this question does arise—and in days like ours it must be raised—it is not the duty of dogmatics to given the answer. This is a question for apologetics or “eristics”. But dogmatics presupposes the Christian Faith and the Christian Church not only as a fact bu as the possibility of its own existence. From the standpoint of the Church, however, it is right to put the question of the possibility of, and the necessity for, dogmatics.[1]

Thomas F. Torrance briefly describes Christian Dogmatics this way:

Christian Dogmatics – the church’s orderly understanding of scripture and articulation of doctrine in the light of Christ and their coherence in him.[2]

What should be clear from Brunner’s longer explanation, and T.F. Torrance’s shorter one is that Christian Dogmatics is the work of Christians done within the community of the witness of the church of Jesus Christ; as it is pressed up against the reality of its Subject, the living God who is Triune—the ‘God who has spoken’ (Deus dixit).

I am afraid all too many have confused the work of apologetics or “eristics” with the work of Christian Dogmatics; and if they haven’t then they have unfortunately carried over the tools and methods used by apologists, and imported those into the work of Christian Dogmatics. The work of an apologist is largely the work of a philosopher; the work of a Christian Dogmatician is the work of a Christian thinker who self-consciously is working under the pressures of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The Christian Dogmatician is not trying to “prove” God’s existence, so he/she can then talk about God; no. The Christian Dogmatician, by definition has already repented and come under the reality of the Christian God in Christ in and through the witness of the church. This is the work I am doing here at the blog; I engage in Christian dogmatic thinking.

One more point of clarification: I do not think a Christian apologist, in the work they do, actually “proves” the existence of the living God; what they do, if anything, is “prove” a god-concept. What the apologist or Christian philosopher should avoid is the conflation of their work with that of the Christian dogmatician; they are definitionally different. What has happened though, unfortunately, is that often this is exactly what happens; over-zealous Christian philosophers and apologists import the concept of god they have “proven” into Christian Dogmatics, and think they are the same God, they aren’t!

In regard to Brunner, one thing that you will notice in his definition of Christian Dogmatics is an emphasis on the Church; he offers a very ecclesiocentric approach to things. I fully appreciate his description of Christian Dogmatics, but I want to be more radical and less neo-orthodox than that; I think the reality that ought to ‘control’ Christian Dogmatics is not the church, but Jesus Christ as the rule. Barth and Brunner have a famous disagreement where Barth gives Brunner a loud Nein when it comes to the possibility of natural theology. Brunner affirms a qualified understanding of natural theology, while as we know Barth famously rejects it. I think we are already getting a bit of a whiff of this difference even early on in Brunner; his emphasis on the church, I think, is a corollary of his commitment to a qualified notion of a natural theology.

[1] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 3.

[2] T. F. Torrance, ed. Robert T. Walker, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, Glossary.