The Absence of God and the Rejection of the Self-Projected God: A Word to the Atheists and Theologians Alike

I happen to believe this. So, what do I happen to believe, you ask? That atheists, when they say they reject God, aren’t rejecting the living God because they can’t without first knowing God; and they can’t first know the living and real God without the Spirit; and if they had the Spirit they would be a Christian; but since they don’t have the Spirit they aren’t Christians; and thus have no capacity to reject the real God. They instead only have the capacity to reject a god who is really just a projection of themselves; no matter how many Christians they are surrounded by. Even if they can intellectually “know” about the God Christians claim to know, they themselves cannot make this claim since the Spirit is required to know this God; to have eyes to see and ears to hear His voice. Since they are not this capacious, they may well be atheists; but they are atheists only insofar that they are rejecting the gods that the philosophers and they themselves have projected. If my premise seems tautologous, it is; but only insofar as God is the beginning and end of the circle. Barth agrees with me when he writes:

The God whose existence or manifestness they doubt or deny is not God at all. And so too His absence, as they think they should assert it, is not God’s absence at all. In order to be aware of God’s absence they would first of all have to know God and therefore God’s revelation. All general intellectual difficulties and impossibilities respecting knowledge of so-called supernatural things assert nothing at all in face of the negation of all other knowability of God which is achieved by God’s revelation itself. God does not belong to those supernatural things which may be believed and asserted to-day, doubted and denied to-morrow. And so, the difficulties and impossibilities respecting knowledge of these things, which the sceptic and atheist fancy they should take so very seriously, have nothing whatever to do with the hiddenness of God for man or man’s blindness for God. The seriousness of the fact that God is not free for us, not to be possessed, first begins with the revelation which delimits this fact, yet also illumines and confirms it in its factuality.[1]

This has tacit relationship to Anselm’s fides quarens intellectum (‘faith seeking understanding’), but is also a bit distinct. Barth’s point here is more publically critical than that. It is more in line with Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique of cultural religionists who worship a god of their own self-projection; it is a constructively critical appropriation of that line of thought.

This has impact on a variety of things, one of which is the way we as Christians engage with non-Christians. As an evangelist it makes me think I shouldn’t be in the business of proving God’s existence to atheists or agnostics, but instead simply proclaiming the Gospel to them which is the power of God. Indeed, this sort of anti-natural-theological/law thinking kicks against the North American evangelical sub-culture in some stinging ways. But then, on the positive side, in the same sub-culture there is this sort of emphasis on simply proclaiming the Gospel to whoever will hear, and allow the seed to fall where it will.

Barth’s critique does indeed have implication towards the way the Christian theologian does their theologizing; no doubt. It is a matter of where the theologian starts their theologizing. Thomas Torrance and Barth were of a piece when it comes to this, even if the way they emphasized certain things made them sound a little different one from another when it comes to a natural theology. Nonetheless, they both are theologians of the analogia fidei or analogy of faith tradition; the tradition that grounds knowledge of God in God Revealed and then given to and for us in the vicarious humanity of Christ in and through the faith of Christ which is the basis for our knowledge of God. We can also pick up entailments of Calvin’s ‘faith as knowledge of God’ in both Barth and Torrance in this instance. These are important things that continue to run over the heads of many theologians in the current evangelical climate. They simply go on their merry-way, and act as if such things really don’t matter; they continue to engage in a textus receptus way of theology, wherein they simply see themselves as inheritors of a by-gone Protestant theology that represents, for them, the only genuine way to be an orthodox, conservative, evangelical theologian. But they are wrong. And more significantly, what is of ultimate import, beyond figuring out if we are in line with an ad hoc conception of who the orthodox are or aren’t, is to simply be focused on doing theology that is most proximate to the Gospel reality itself. In other words, who cares, ultimately, what the genetics are; the Gospel itself is the only genealogy that really matters.

Anyway, atheists, theologians, and all of us ought to be wary of thinking we can have a genuine knowledge of God apart from the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. We ought to start everything from that point or not start at all.


[1] Barth, CD I/1 §13, 28.

Our ‘Lost Time’ in the ‘New Time’ of the Saga of Jesus Christ: How Saga Functions in Barth’s Usage

Barth is often depicted as a liberal or “neoorthodox” theologian who repudiates the inerrancy of Holy Scripture, which alone anathematizes him for the evangelical. Barth is often presented as an enemy to conservative orthodox Christianity, with his neo-Kantian, reified Hegelianism ripping to shreds any hope of giving the evangelical churches anything wholesome and genuinely biblical to cogitate upon. Barth, in many sectors of the evangelical and Reformed churches, is considered as enemy of the state to the health and well-being of historically orthodox Christianity. Barth is often demonized, caricaturized, and flambéed just at the point that someone moves their lips into position to pronounce his name.

But what I want people to understand is that Barth is none of these negatives I just noted. When you actually spend time with him and his theology the reader will quickly realize that the fears I’ve been listing are unwarranted and have almost no teeth to them whatsoever; save Barth’s repudiation of inerrancy (which his reasons for repudiating this “doctrine” isn’t the same reason the “Liberals” do, but instead based upon his theory of revelation, which I would argue is more attuned and evangelical than inerrancy as a doctrine allows for in regard to a doctrine of Holy Scripture). In line with this desire to show that Barth isn’t the anti-Christ that so many fear, I wanted to share a snippet from him on the way he thinks about Scripture, and how what he calls saga actually fits better with the evangelical desire to see Christ magnified and prime over all our considerations as thoughtful Christians. I want people to come to the realization that Barth offers a genuinely Protestant way to be Protestant without succumbing to what I consider the trojan horse of Catholicity (big “C”), as that continues to make in-roads into the evangelical theologies being recovered today.

As we pick up with Barth, the context we meet him in is on his theory of time/eternity and God. As I alluded to above, he gets into his thinking on saga (v myth think Bultmann), and how that relates to historical personages and events as deposited in the salvation-history we canvas throughout the pages of the both the Old and New Testaments. I will close with a parting word, after the quote, and leave a link to another post I once wrote on this same topic vis-à-vis Barth. Barth writes:

At this point we recall once more the extraordinary significance of chronology in the Old and New Testaments. The whole of the patriarchal ages in Genesis, the rise of the prophets, the various historical co-ordinates of the place of Jesus Christ at the beginning of the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke are presented with a rare exactitude. In this, use may have been made of antiquated Oriental number-symbolics or number-mysticisms, whereby arithmetical error, whimsies and impossibilities may have crept in. But the wonderful thing to be noted here in the Bible Is not the correctness or incorrectness in content of the temporal figures, but their thoroughgoing importance as time data, which is but underlined by incidental number-mysticism and other liberties. There is not a suggestion that revelation and its attestation might have been localised just as well elsewhere or anywhere in historical space. How important it was for the early Church, too, to be able to date the incarnation of the Word, is shown by the passus sub Pontio Pilato [suffered under Pontius Pilate], already in the oldest forms of confession. Revelation is thus and not otherwise localised. In the event of Jesus Christ, as in the various events in anticipation and recollection, it is as genuinely temporal and therefore as temporally determined and limited as any other real events in this space of ours. It is also—think for a moment of the story of creation—described temporally real, where according to the measurements of modern history this description can only be “saga” or “legend.” The Bible also says the same where it transmits parables in the Old and New Testaments. Myths, on the contrary, i.e., narrative expositions of general spiritual or natural truths, narratives which although savouring perhaps of saga do not claim to be narratives, but are to be understood only when stripped of their narrative character, so that the eternal core is liberated from the temporal shell—myths do no occur in the Bible, although mythical material may often be employed in its language (Church Dogmatics I, 1, 373 f.). The dialogue between God and Satan at the beginning of the book of Job “took place on a day” (1.6) corresponding to the day on which subsequently the earthly misfortune burst upon Job. Also Job’s question of God (10.4): “Hast thou eyes of flesh, or seest thou as man seeth? Are they days as the days of men, or they years as man’s years?”, is in the sense of the text certainly not to be answered with a simple negative. In view of the time concept we must not try to avoid the way of Holy Scripture’s “privileged anthropomorphism” (J. G. Hamann, Schriften, ed. F. Roth, vol. 4, 9). Year, day, hour—these are concepts which cannot possibly be separated from the biblical witness to God’s revelation, which in the exposition of it cannot be treated as trifles, if we are not to turn it into a quite different witness to a quite different revelation.

Having said that, we must, of course, go on to say that the time we mean when we say Jesus Christ is not to be confused with any other time. Just as man’s existence became something new and different altogether, because God’s Son assumed it and took it over into unity with his God-existence, just as by the eternal Word becoming flesh the flesh could not repeat Adam’s sin, so time, by becoming the time of Jesus Christ, although it belonged to our time, the lost time, became a different, a new time.[1]

Let the emboldened section serve as commentary on the un-emboldened section. That section lets us understand, better, what Barth is on about. When he refers to saga, he is referring to a real-life historical event as recorded in the biblical witness, and to real-life historical personages; but he is wanting us to read that from the frame of the ‘new-time’ that Christ is for us. In other words, it is saga precisely at the point that historicism and the form criticism of his day could not actually access the “history” of Holy Scripture precisely because such history is only modulated and refracted as it is seen in the Light of the risen Christ. We see here, in Barth, an emphasis on ‘eschatological-time’ breaking in and throughout the witness and canonical formation of the scriptural witness; through its narration of various events and people in those events as they find teleological (purposeful) concreteness in the flesh and blood reality and event of God’s life for the world gifted to it in Jesus Christ.

Saga was the only category, in this context, he could see working to depict the history-delimiting reality that God’s life serves for the creaturely world as its inner and forward grounded reality. As is typical for Barth, his deployment of saga is a reification of that term from its normal usage in literary theory/studies. Nevertheless, it functions in a similar manner; in the sense that the history of God in Christ for the world appears to the profane eyes as just that: legend or saga. But of course, for Barth, this is only because Christ’s reality has not been received by the eyes of faith, but rather the mind of unbelief. Even so, for Barth, saga certainly operates with the general literary characteristics of its normal usage, yet it is reified insofar as what ironically appears as a normal saga, on the superficial, ends up being a saga of epigrammatic portions; the likes of which only those in union with Christ can come to see as greater than the sagas of fictional story or legend. Yet again, saga, for Barth is embedded in a greater theological web of revelation, election, and covenant that puts him onto such a word to help him explicate what he is really trying to say in contrast to many others of his time; others, who indeed, ended up reading Jesus as myth, based upon other optics such as existential encounter provides for the individual knower—albeit cut off from the concreteness of the Christ event and tethered only by the floating brains of those seeking an encounter unencumbered by the solidity of an accessible history. Barth’s usage and appeal to saga is a subversive exercise shaped by his own location and theological formation. Nonetheless, in my view, it has wonderful trajectory as it supplies the evangelical with a way to view the history recounted in Holy Scripture through the reality of Jesus Christ (a real history pre-determined by God’s supralapsarian election to be for the world rather than against it Jn. 3.16).

Here is a link to another post that I once wrote on this topic: Click Here


[1] Karl Barth, CD I/2 §14, 52. The first long section is Barth’s ‘small print’ and the emboldened section is a regular sized font section.

The ‘Internal History of Jesus’ and the Gospel According to Wilhelm Herrmann

In the following Bruce McCormack sketches out, what Wilhelm Herrmann believed about the ‘historical Jesus as the ground of faith.’ Herrmann was Barth’s teacher while Barth studied at the University of Marburg. As you read this, from your own perspective as a Christian, do you find anything objectionable about the way Herrmann conceived of Jesus and salvation therefrom? If you know anything about the school that Herrmann represented in his day, then you will understand that there were some attending problems with his theology; as Barth later would come against himself. But as a stand-alone representation of Herrmann’s thought on this locus, let me know what you think:

(iv) The Historical Jesus as the Ground of Faith

How is the experience of revelation in which new life is bestowed upon a person related to the historical person called Jesus of Nazareth? For Herrmann, the historical Jesus is the revelation of God, the uncontestable saving fact in which our faith in God is grounded. But of course, When Herrmann spoke of the “historical” Jesus, he did not mean Jesus as he might be known with the tools of historical-critical research. Historians, in so far as they seek to reconstruct what really happened, work merely with external features; with events and teachings, with facts and forces. Historians deal only with external history. To that extent, the “object” of their scrutiny falls under the generative laws which govern all theoretical knowing (as described by Cohen). But for Herrmann, there is also an internal history—a history of spiritual effects to which the historian qua historian has no access. The locus of divine revelation in Jesus lies not so much in what he did and said as it does in his “inner life”, which is hidden to view. The incomparable moral purity of that inner life exercised a redemptive power on Christ’s first disciples by which their lives were transformed. The effectiveness of their witness in turn, lay not so much in what they said but in who they were; in the lives they led. And so it comes about that, two thousand years later, we first catch a glimpse of that inner life of Jesus through the effect it has had on other believers in the Church. The become to us a source of revelation, helping us to see that it is possible to live a truthful, authentic existence. Through their witness, we are enabled to come to the Gospel accounts with eyes that have been opened to the reality which lies hidden there. We see the picture of a man who lived in perfect surrender to God, who was able to love all people without exception, and who knew himself to be without sin. We are so startled by this incomparable phenomenon that we are only able to attribute it to the power of God. In that we do so, we too experience that power which Jesus experienced. We come to understand that His Father will not reject us in spite of our failures, but rather, accepts us as children. It for this reason that Jesus alone is the revelation which grounds our faith in God.[1]

There is mention of Cohen, by McCormack, in the above sketch. As is typical of any theological developments they are always in conversation with others. Herrmann’s theological viewpoints were no different than anyone else’s in that sense. Cohen represented a particular school within the philosophical-theological milieu of Herrmann’s day; which in the Protestant world was shaped primarily by Ritschl and Schleiermacher and Kant. Herrmann, according to McCormack, stood out from these schools in his own independent way; even while being in-formed by them, as he was responding to them and attempting to potentially correct them.

Even so, as the sketch goes above, what do you think; could you affirm what McCormack’s Herrmann thinks in regard to Jesus and salvation?

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909-1936 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 61-2.

In Defense of Barth’s and Torrance’s Critique of Westminster Calvinism

A repost (not for the faint of heart, approx. 4,300 words). I am still working towards a PhD, and will be adding the gist of this post to the dissertation (which will be accredited, Lord willing). I wanted to write a post on this issue, but then searched my blog and found this. It seems like I’m almost at the point here at the blog that I’ve already written on everything, with reference to Calvinism (LOL). Anyway, settle in and give this post a read. 

Someone on Facebook took issue with my post on Torrance’s critique of Westminster Calvinism, or more pointedly: Federal theology. He believes that Torrance fully mischaracterizes and misunderstands Covenant theology and its implications; he wrote in comment to the post on the FB thread:

Not sure what to think of this. Of course, this isn’t outside of your modus operandi, so on the one hand, I should just nod my head, saying, “classic Bobby Grow.” And, at the same time, I recognize that your blog posts are, at base, a paraphrase rather than developed presentation of your thought. But, on the other hand, I question Torrance’s accuracy regarding his reading of the Westminsterian tradition and thus his reading of the classic theism of which Westminster is only a species. Consequently, I question the strength of your judgment in following him.

Would you be willing to offer us a blog post or two (I’m sure you have some in your archives that you could publish as well) that would directly engage with the Westminster Standards? Again, I recognize that your posts are distillations and summaries, but it may help the sympathetic reader (or otherwise) to see the strength and substance of your argument.

My blog itself (and when I say “blog” I am referring to my blog in toto, not blog posts that populate the blog) is a living testimony to what I think about Westminster theology. In fact, I have a whole category dedicated to critiquing Federal Calvinism which I have endearingly entitled: critiquing classic Calvinism. But in an effort to reiterate such things once more, let me do that throughout the rest of this post.

The issue, the way I see it, can be reduced simply to a doctrine of God, and how God relates to the world in the so-called God/world relation. It ought to be made clear upfront that Torrance’s critique of classical theism, in general, and Westminster Calvinism, in particular, is not unique to him, or the After Barth tradition within which he broadly works (I say broadly because in many ways TFT is his own man, particularly when it comes to critiquing classical theism of a certain mechanical sort). My initial openness to Torrance (and Barth) was because of my formal education and background in historical theology. My now former professor, and mentor (who I would still consider as such), Ron Frost, turned me onto a critique of Federal theology, and its God, not from engaging with the theologies of Barth or Torrance, but through reference to Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Sibbes, John Cotton et al. Again, the theme that grounds the critique of Covenant theology, whether that be in the aforementioned theologians, or presently in Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance is the same. The theme that they all have in common in critique of Federal theology’s supporting doctrine of God is that the God underwriting Westminster Calvinism is a God who relates to the world mechanically; that is their God, in their understanding, relates to the world through decrees, and thus mechanically rather than relationally. This was the critique Frost turned me onto, and is the one that both Barth and Torrance make of “classical theism” in their own respective ways.

With this in mind let me lift up a rather definitive and “summarizing” quote from Barth that helps to, once again, illustrate for us just how decisive a doctrine of God is towards determining all subsequent theological lines of reflection. Here we have Barth offering a critique of Calvin’s doctrine of election (in this instance Calvin’s doctrine of election ought to be understood as typical of classical Calvinism’s understanding in general), and the decretal God funding such doctrine:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[1]

Compare Barth’s critique of Calvin’s doctrine of election with what would come latterly (relative to Calvin) in the Westminster Confession of Faith’s chapter three Of God’s Eternal Decree

Of God’s Eternal Decree

    1. God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
    2. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.
    3. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.
    4. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.
    5. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace.
    6. As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.
    7. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy, as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice.
    8. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel.[2]

While Barth refers us to Calvin he might as well have been referring us to chapter three of the Westminster Confession of Faith; in fact, he may well have been anachronistically overlaying some of that onto Calvin’s theology. For our purposes I am hopeful (because of both time and space constraints) that the contrast and the basis of critique that Torrance himself (insofar as he imbibes Barth’s) is grounded in a doctrine of God.

For those who adhere to the tradition codified in the WCF it is what Richard Muller calls the Christian Aristotelian tradition that stands glaringly at the forefront. In other words, there is no attempt to hide the fact that those present at Westminster (and Dordt for that matter) were simply re-iterating Thomas Aquinas’ synthesis of Aristotle’s categories of the Infinite or Pure Being with Christian theology. In other words, for the WCF it isn’t Jesus Christ, as the Son of the Father, who is the ground or basis of election; for the WCF it is the absolutum decretum or absolute decree that God has chosen, post-lapsarian, to relate gratuitously to a small elect group of people. And his choice to relate to these elect people will be actualized by Christ for them; by Christ meeting the legal requirements that were set out by the so-called covenant of works. Richard Muller writes (at excessive length):

Given these relationships between law and grace, the two covenants, and the problems of sin and salvation, it should not be surprising that a central issue addressed in the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works was the issue of federal headship and, therefore, the parallels between the first and the second Adam, the federal heads of the covenants of works and of grace. It is at this point that the soteriological ground of the doctrine of the covenant of works is most clearly presented, particularly in terms of its relationship to the doctrine of Christ’s mediatorial headship and work of satisfaction.

Adam, in the covenant of works, “stood as the head of mankind [caput totius generis humani],” in his person “representing” the entire human race. By the same token, as indicated by the Apostle in Romans 5:11-15, Christ as the antitype of Adam stands as the representative of humanity in the covenant of grace and the “surety” of fulfillment or substitute for mankind before the law of God, in effect, in fulfillment of the demands of the violated covenant of works. After all, the violation of the covenant of works abrogated the law as a covenant, not as the ultimate “rule of life.” It is both the permanence of the divine promise of fellowship and the stability of the divine law as the standard of holiness and righteousness and, therefore, as the basis for fellowship with the holy and righteous God, that relates the covenants to one another: “the law declares, that there is no admission for any to eternal life, but on the account of a perfect and absolutely complete righteousness; [and] also, that every sinner shall undergo the penalty of death, the dominion of which is eternal” unless the penalty of sin is paid and “the dominion of death … abolished.”

Drawing on the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, Witsius argues the equivalency of the promises of the two covenants. Paul, he notes, “distinguishes the rightness of the law from the evangelical” while at the same time indicating that “life” is promised under both covenants. Concerning legal righteousness, Paul writes “that the man which doth these things shall live by them” (Rom. 10:5) and concerning evangelical righteousness, “the just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17). Even so,

On both sides, the promise of life is the same, proposed in the very same words. For the apostle does not hint by the least expression, that one kind of life is promised by gospel, another by the law…. But the apostle places the whole difference, not in the thing promised by the law to the man that worketh, which he now receives by faith in Christ. But to what man thus working was it promised? to the sinner only? Was it not to man in his innocency? Was it not then when it might truly be said, If you continue to do well, you shall be the heir of that life upon that condition. Which could be said to none but to upright Adam. Was it not then, when the promise was actually made? For after the entrance of sin, there is not so much a promise, as a denunciation of wrath, and an intimation of a curse, proposing that as the condition for obtaining life, which is now impossible. I therefore conclude, that to Adam, in the covenant of works, was promised the same eternal life, to be obtained by the righteousness which is the law, of which believers are made partakers through Christ.

The identical point is made by Brakel with reference to the same texts.

Arguably, both theologians here manifest the central reason for the doctrine of a covenant of works and its fundamental relationship to the doctrines of justification by grace through faith and Christ’s satisfaction for sin: the issue is not to hammer home a legalistic view of life and salvation but precisely the opposite, while at the same time upholding the stability of divine law. There can be no salvation by works, but only by a means that excludes works—in short, through faith in Christ. Nonetheless, the law is not void. Indeed, the law remains the representation of divine goodness, holiness, and righteousness placed in the heart and mind of Adam even as he was created in the image of God. Given the fact of sin, such a law can no longer hold forth its original promise of fellowship with God, but it remains the condition of fellowship just as it remains the temporal indication of the goodness, holiness, and righteousness of God. The covenant of works takes on for the fallen Adam the function of the second or pedagogical use of the law—precisely the function of the Mosaic law understood as the legal covenant or covenant of works: “The Lord willed,” Brakel writes, that Adam “would now turn away from the broken covenant of works, and, being lost in himself, would put all hope in the seed of the woman, which was promised to him immediately thereafter.”

The covenant of works, then, was not violated and made void from the human side by the sin of Adam and Eve, rendering the promises of the covenant inaccessible to their posterity—but it was also, Witsius argues, abrogated from the divine side in the sense that God has clearly willed not to renew or recast the covenant of works for the sake of offering to fallen humanity a promise of life grounded in its own personal righteousness. In other words, God will not now, in the context of human sinfulness “prescribe a condition of obedience less perfect than that which he stipulated” in the original covenant of works. Nonetheless, so far as the promise of eternal life is concerned, all of mankind remains subject to its “penal sanction”: thus, sin does not render void nor the divine abrogation of the covenant of works remove “the unchangeable truth” of God’s “immutable and indispensable justice.” Even so, Calvin had argued the “perpetual validity” of the law and had insisted that “the law has been divinely handed down to us to teach us perfect righteousness; there no other righteousness is taught than that which conforms to the requirements of God’s will.”

The divine abrogation of the covenant of works, then, does not abolish the promise of God or the condition of holiness and righteousness required for the fulfillment of the promise. And it is precisely because of this coordinate stability of promise and law that the covenant of grace becomes effective in Christ alone. When the Apostle Paul writes, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law,” he indicates both that “the covenant of grace does not abrogate, but supposes the abrogation of the covenant of works” and that

the covenant of grace is not [itself] the abolition, but rather the confirmation of the covenant of works, inasmuch as the Mediator has fulfilled all the conditions of that covenant, so that all believers may be justified and saved according to the covenant of works, to which satisfaction was made by the Mediator…. The very law of the covenant, which formerly gave up the human sinner to sin, when his condition is once changed by union with Christ the surety, does now, without any abolition, abrogation, or any other change whatever, absolve the man from the guilt and dominion of sin, and bestow on him that sanctification and glorification, which are gradually brought to perfection, which he shall obtain at the resurrection of the dead.

The stability of the law, guaranteed in the divine maintenance of the terms of the covenant of works, points not to a legalistic view of salvation but to the fullness of Christ’s work of sanctification and to the totally unmerited character of the salvation provided by grace through faith to believers. “Recognize,” writes Brakel, that “the Lord Jesus placed Himself under” the “same law Adam had … and thereby He merited redemption and adoption as children for the elect.”

The ultimate relationship of the covenant of works to the covenant of grace and, equally so, of Adam to Christ as the old and new federal heads of the humanity, is established and outlined by Witsius, Brakel, and virtually all of the major Reformed covenant theologians of the seventeenth century in their discussion of the “covenant of redemption” or pactum salutis between God the Father and God the Son. Here, also, as in the case of the covenant of works, we encounter a doctrinal construct, elicited according to the terms of the older Reformed hermeneutic, from the collation and exegetical analysis of a series of biblical passages. The doctrine itself probably originated with Cocceius, but its roots are most probably to be found in the earlier Reformed mediation on the trinitarian nature of the divine decrees. While not attempting to offer a discussion of the entire doctrine of the covenant of redemption, we can note here its function with respect to the two other covenants. In the first place, it is the eternal foundation of the covenant of grace, according to which Christ is established, in the depths of the Trinity, as the Redeemer, the new federal head of humanity, and the surety and sponsor of humanity in covenant: in short, the covenant of redemption is an “agreement between God and his elect. The covenant of grace thus also “presupposes” the covenant of redemption and “is founded upon it.”

In the second place, the covenant of redemption established the eternal remedy for the problem of sin and ensured the full manifestation and exercise of the divine righteousness and justice both in the covenant of works and beyond its abrogation. As Brakel comments, “The fact that God from eternity foreknew the fall, decreeing that He would permit it to occur, is not only confirmed by the doctrines of His omniscience and decrees, but also from the fact that God from eternity ordained a Redeemer for man, to deliver him from sin: the Lord Jesus Christ whom Peter calls the Lamb, “who was foreknown [voorgekend] before the foundation of the world. By the covenant of redemption, the Son binds himself to the work of salvation and, therefore, to the fulfillment of the condition of fellowship with God for the sake of God’s covenant people. Thus the promises, the conditions, and the penalties for failure to fulfill the conditions remain—but the conditions are met and the penalties satisfied in Christ. As eternally guaranteed by the covenant of redemption, “conditions are offered, to which eternal salvation is annexed; conditions not to be performed again by us, which might throw the mind into despondence; but by him, who would not part with his life, before he had truly said, “It is finished.”

After excoriating Thomas F. Torrance, Rolson, and Poole for naïvely deconstructing this kind (the above aforementioned by Muller) of classical Covenant theology through a ‘Barthian’ misunderstanding and caricature (of classical Covenant theology, as described by Muller above), Muller concludes thusly:

[…] The purported legalism of the continuing covenant of works as presented in the demands of the law is nothing less than permanence of the original divine intention to ground the fellowship in the nature of God and in the imago Dei. Witsius and Brakel recognized in their debate with seventeenth-century Arminian and Socinian adversaries that as long as covenant refers to a relationship between God and human beings, law must belong to covenant as much as promise. They also understood—as we should perhaps recognize in the theological presuppositions of the contemporary critics of the doctrine—that the denial of the covenant of works, the attempt to deny the legal element of covenant in general (and, today, the attempt to pit the Reformers against their successors), represent not only an alternative view of the original relationship between God and human beings but also an alternative theory of Christ’s atonement and a theology that, at best, is less than traditionally Reformed.

The elements of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works that I have described here indicate the result of a process of doctrinal development in the Reformed tradition. As such, the language of the doctrine is certainly different from the language of the Reformers and even from that of earlier successors to the original Reformers such as Ursinus and Olevian or, indeed, in a slightly later time, William Perkins. Yet, the fundamental points of the doctrine, that the work of redemption must be understood both in terms of law and of grace, that human beings were created in and for fellowship with God under terms both of promise and of law, that Adam’s fall was a transgression of God’s law, that human inability after the Fall in no way removes the standard or the demands of the law, and that the gift of salvation through Christ’s satisfaction for sin both sets believers free from the law’s condemnation and upholds the laws demands, remain virtually identical. The free gift of grace in the one covenant respects the stability of law in the other, while the presence of law under different uses in both covenants echoes both the immutability of the divine nature and the constancy of the divine promises.[3]

I wanted to share this whole section from Muller because I want to be clear that my assertions are in line with what the foremost scholar of such things articulates himself.

For Barth, Torrance, and others there is no abstract decree standing behind the back of Jesus in the work of redemption; particularly as that is couched in a doctrine of election vis-à-vis doctrine of God. For Barth, contra Westminster theology, God is only known and given to and for us, for all of humanity, in the concrete humanity and history of the Son become flesh and blood. For Barth God first loved us, not based on legal conditions, but because He first loved us in the Son (so we see a radical doctrine of supralapsarianism present in Barth’s and “my” theology), so that we might love Him. ‘In the beginning God created,’ this is the first word of God’s Grace for us (h/t Ray Anderson); thus, all of human reality in a God/world relation is one that is grounded in Grace, not Law, all the way down (h/t TFT).

But as we can see with reference to WCF directly, and Muller’s description of Covenant theology in particular, the ‘Westminsterian’ tradition is grounded in an Aristotelian Pure Being conception of God; as such, God, in this frame will relate to humanity through a mechanical non-relational/non-personalist frame of reconciliation. Indeed, he must relate to us this way if in fact God’s immutability and simplicity, under its Aristotelian terms, is to remain untouched by or non-contingent upon creation. This is the sine qua non of classical Westminster theology; viz. that God’s ‘Pure Being’ remain pure and unfettered by the trivialities of this world order. This is why TF Torrance has argued that God’s relationship to the world, in the Westminsterian frame, isn’t first based upon an ontology of triune love, as the logic of grace and ground of relationship to humanity, but instead upon a mechanism of Law-keeping; Law-keeping of the sort that is in concert with a God who in His inner-life is characterized by brute power and monadic self-preoccupation; a conception of God that conceives of God’s inner-life as made up of a non-relational substance-in-being relationship that emphasizes God’s oneness at the expense of His threeness (and thus relationality).

With God’s oneness, and the need to keep God pure and actually infinite in the heavens, the Westminster theologians concocted a theological framework (based on the work of others as Muller attests) that makes sure that God’s abstract and ‘other’ power remains intact; even at the expense of emphasizing Who God is for us as revealed in the Father-Son relationship in the God-man, Jesus Christ. Thus, for the Westminsterians, God’s love for the elect is contingent upon the Son, in the covenant of grace, meeting the conditions and requirements originally set out in the covenant of works. He could only love the elect after such legal requirements and penalties were met. This is what Torrance’s critique says, and it is not erroneous when we consider what in fact Westminster is built upon. Torrance (and Barth’s) theology counters by saying that God’s love for us is not contingent upon us meeting legal requirements, but simply upon who God is eternally as Father of the Son in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. There is no decree, for Barth, or Torrance, but Christ. And to even use the language of ‘decree’ in such a frame is to do so ironically and for purposes of reifying what in fact God is about as triune love.

There is still much more to be said (and I have said so so much more in that category I referred you to earlier). Remember, this is bloggy and off the top. This is worthy of a polished paper in order to present things in a more coherent manner; but the lineaments of the argument and response (to my interlocutor) should be clear enough as presently presented.


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

[2] Accessed 01-15-2020 [emphasis mine].

[3] Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 185-89.

Noticing Some Tone Deafness in David Kelsey’s Reading of Barth’s Election

I have plenty of direct engagements with Karl Barth’s doctrine of election here at the blog. But I also like to hear from various other commentators, and how they attempt to distill Barth’s theological oeuvre. The following commentary comes from theologian, David Kelsey. Kelsey isn’t of the Barthian stream, in fact he is situated more comfortably among contemporary classical theologians like Katherine Sonderegger, John Webster et al. The passage from him below is his brief sketch of Barth’s doctrine of election, and how it finds its ultimate purposiveness in the singular will of God. Kelsey will be critiquing Barth (with Aquinas write alongside Barth et al.) on the notion that God only has one overarching purpose (we might say, will) for creation; Kelsey argues that God has many purposes, and thus they should not be reduced to one totalizing purpose. Kelsey writes:

For Karl Barth in the twentieth century, the overall goal of God’s various ways of relating to all else is to actualize God’s eternal decree to enter into covenant relation ad extra with a particular “other,” the particular humanity of the eternal Son of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. The overall movement to that goal — except for the impossible possibility of sin — is the unfolding of the logical implications of that one eternal decree: Because Christ’s humanity is intrinsically social, the creation of fellow human beings is required. Because fellow human creatures are bodied, the creation of the physical world is required. Because God has eternally decreed to be in covenant fellowship with the Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ must be born into that world whether or not creatures have “fallen” (Christological supralapsarianism). Because in the fall Jesus’ fellow human creatures are estranged from God, Jesus’ reconciling death is unavoidable. Because God eternally decrees that God’s covenant fellowship with Jesus and his human covenant partners be actualized and manifested in an eschatological consummation, the resurrection of the crucified Jesus is required. This is a logical, not a chronological, sequence although it is played out in time as a “history.” For Barth “the eternal covenant which God has decreed in Himself as the covenant of the Father with His Son as the Lord and Bearer of human nature is the “inner basis.” [sic] not only (as Barth explicitly has it) of creation, but of every other moment in the economy moving toward the actualization of God’s eternal decree, except sin.[1]

Rather than focusing on what Kelsey will be critiquing in Barth vis-à-vis the singular and totalizing purpose of God, I want to respond to the way that Kelsey characterizes Barth’s understanding of the decree.

Kelsey, when referring to God’s decree in Barth’s theology, makes it sound too abstract; as abstract as the classical decretum absolutum (absolute decree of predestination and election) that Barth vociferously critiques in longform over and again throughout his Church Dogmatics. This might seem like a subtle thing to harp on, but it’s precisely because it is so subtle that I want to harp on it. It isn’t that Kelsey ultimately misses the gist of Barth’s thinking on election, and God’s telos for the world therein; it is that Kelsey fails to speak of the decree in the types of relational and personalist ways that Barth does. Barth thinks of election not through an abstract decree, in the tone we hear in Kelsey, but, again, in the Trinitarian and relational ways that Barth thinks God from God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Let me end this with Barth himself:



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


Between God and man there stands the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and Himself man, and so mediating between the two. In Him God reveals Himself to man. In Him man sees and knows God. In Him God stands before man and man stands before God, and is the eternal will of God, and the eternal ordination of man in accordance with this will. In Him God’s plan for man is disclosed, God’s judgment on man fulfilled, God’s deliverance of man accomplished, God’s gift to man present in fulness, God’s claim and promise to man declared. In Him God has joined Himself to man. And so man exists for His sake. It is by Him, Jesus Christ, and for Him and to Him, that the universe is created as a theatre for God’s dealings with man and man’s dealings with God. The being of God is His being, and similarly the being of man is originally His being. And there is nothing that is not from Him and by Him and to Him. He is the Word of God in whose truth everything is disclosed and whose truth cannot be over-reached or conditioned by any other word. He is the decree of God behind and above which there can be no earlier or higher decree and beside which there can be no other, since all others serve only the fulfillment of this decree. He is the beginning of God before which there is no other beginning apart from that of God within Himself. Except, then, for God Himself, nothing can derive from any other source or look back to any other starting-point. He is the election of God before which and without which and beside which God cannot make any other choices. Before Him and without Him and beside Him God does not, then, elect or will anything. And He is the election (and on that account the beginning and the decree and the Word) of the free grace of God. For it is God’s free grace that in Him He elects to be man and to have dealings with man and to join Himself to man. He, Jesus Christ, is the free grace of God as not content simply to remain identical with the inward and eternal being of God, but operating ad extra in the ways and works of God. And for this reason, before Him and above Him and beside Him and apart from Him there is no election, no beginning, no decree, no Word of God. Free grace is the only basis and meaning of all God’s ways and works ad extra. For what extra is there that the ways and works could serve, or necessitate, or evoke? There is no extra except that which is first willed and posited by God in the presupposing of all His ways and works. There is no extra except that which has its basis and meaning as such in the divine election of grace. But Jesus Christ is Himself the divine election of grace. For this reason He is God’s Word, God’s decree and God’s beginning. He is so all-inclusively, comprehending absolutely within Himself all things and everything, enclosing within Himself the autonomy of all other words, decrees and beginnings.[2]

The reader at this point might be thinking, so what! If we were to uncritically take Kelsey’s tone in regard to Barth’s doctrine of election we might be tempted to miss the whole project that Barth has attempted to construct. That is, we might place Barth alongside the post reformed orthodox theologians, or even someone like Theodore Beza. But this would eradicate the whole point of Barth’s reformulation of election, and the relational impulses funding said reformulation. We might be tempted to think, along with Kelsey, that we could speak of the decree of God in abstraction from God’s subject in election, in His beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

[1] David H. Kelsey, Human Anguish and God’s Power (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 169-70.

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

All You Ever Wanted to Know about Barth’s Analogy of Faith

The Deus absconditus (‘hidden God’) is the Deus revelatus (‘revealed God’) in Jesus Christ. But how do we know this? Because Jesus said so; He demonstrated so. A genuine Christian theologian isn’t given to fits of speculation about godness. A genuine Christian theologian is definitionally such simply by the confession that they are Christian. But much of this has gone by the wayside in the development of dogma in the catholic Church. In Latin theology for example, where Thomas Aquinas has been canonized, for both the Catholic and Protestant theologian alike, the method for developing a doctrine of God is based in speculation, and an analogia entis (‘analogy of being’). But this kicks against the premise of Scripture itself. Holy Scripture is Holy without proof. In other words, God just shows up in Scripture. He says I AM. Likewise, Jesus says: I AM. This represents the character or ethos of a genuine Christian theology. That is, the Christian knower of God only knows who (and even what) God is by way of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is as the Christian comes into union with Christ by the Spirit that they come to have a genuine ground for thinking who God is; that is, a ground grounded in Godself for us in Jesus Christ. In other words, in this frame of relation, the Christian can think and know God concretely as they have been granted eyes to see and ears to hear from Christ’s vicarious eyes and ears for us in His mediating humanity. It is here that the Christian theologian can know, think, and speak God. It is in this Holy and sanctified ground where the Christian’s knowledge of God isn’t based in a center in themselves (and thus a speculative, discursive model), but from the center of God for us in Jesus Christ.

The aforementioned is what characterizes Karl Barth’s way for thinking and doing Christian theology. For Barth, and for me, the centraldogma of Christian theology is Jesus Christ. We know this because in the Dominical teaching Jesus says that the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who inhabits the Christian’s heart now as a guarantee, is radically Christ concentrated. The Holy Spirit isn’t given to fits and flights of speculation of an abstract notion of godness; nein, the Holy Spirit’s sole ministry is to push us deeper and deeper into the words and reality of Jesus Christ. It is from whence that the Holy Spirit comes alongside, hovers about, and comforts us. Not by pointing us to an actus purus (‘pure being’) notion of God, but pointing us to the Son of the Father (see Jn 14—16).

With the above in mind lets read along with Bruce McCormack as he describes Barth’s approach to knowledge of God, which is both a terminological analogia relationis (‘analogy of relation’) and analogia fidei (‘analogy of faith’).

. . . Beintker says, ‘the Denkform of the analogia relationis sive proportionalitatis, which sets forth a correspondence between the God-human relation and the human-human relation, forms a constant in Barth’s work from the time the Tambach lecture on.’[1]

The crucial passage appealed to in order to confirm this view is this: ‘The human being does indeed do something corresponding, parallel, analogical in her own creaturely sphere of being in view of that which God does in His, in that He reveals Himself.’.. . What is at stake in this passage is indeed an analogical relation between divine speaking in the act of revelation and human knowing in the act of faith. Beintker is right to see in this an example of what Barth would later call the analogia fidei. It must be pointed out that the Göttingen Prolegomena only came into Beintker’s possession as he was correcting the final draft of his book for publication. Had he had the earlier version of the prolegomena, he would have had to adjust his thesis slightly, placing the first instance of the analogia fidei in 1924 rather than 1927—as he himself implicitly acknowledges through the provision (in the final draft) of the parallel passage in Unterricht to the one just quoted.[2]

McCormack continues:

The ‘analogy of faith’ refers most fundamentally to a relation of correspondence between an act of God and an act of a human subject; the act of divine Self-revelation and the human act of faith in which that revelation is acknowledged. More specifically, the analogy which is established ins a revelation event is an analogy between God’s knowledge of Himself and human knowledge of Him in and through human concepts and words. There are three aspects of this analogy which need to be highlighted. First, the analogy in question is not posited with creation. It is not an analogy between the being of Creator and the being of the creature—which Barth refers to as an analogia entis in contrast to an analogia fidei. The focus here is not being but rather a highly concrete event: the event of revelation. Second, there is nothing in the being or knowing of the human subject which helps to bring this event about—no capacity or pre-understanding which might be seen as a necessary precondition to its occurrence. The only capacity needed for the analogy is one which God Himself graciously provides in the event itself as a gift, namely faith. In the event of revelation, human knowledge is made by grace to conform to its divine object. Thus (the reader will forgive an overused metaphor, but it is good Barthian language), the direction in which the analogy works is always ‘above to below’. That is to say, God’s Self-knowledge does not become analogically related to a prior human knowledge of Him in revelation; rather, human knowledge is conformed to His. God’s act is the analogue, ours is the analogate; His the archetype, ours the ectype. Third, the ‘analogy of faith’ is to be understood ‘actualistically’, that is, strictly as an event. The relation of correspondence which is established in the revelation-event endures. Thus, the ‘analogy of faith’, once realized, does not pass over into human control. It must continue to be effected moment by moment by the sovereign action of the divine freedom if it is to be effected at all.

The central area of theological reflection to which this understanding of analogy was applied by Barth is that of the relation of the content of revelation to human language (concepts and words). Barth’s view is that human language in itself has not capacity for bearing adequate witness to God. If human language is nevertheless able to bear witness, it will only be because a capacity not intrinsic to it has been brought to if from without. But that is grace, not nature. In a gracious and sovereign act, God takes up language of human witnesses and makes it to conform to Himself. God must therefore speak when spoken of by human witnesses if such witness is to reach its goal. He must reveal Himself in and through the ‘veil’ of human language. It is at this point that the inherently dialectical character of the analogia fidei is seen.[3]

There are many trails we could take out of this concise explication on Barth’s analogia relationis-fidei, but let me highlight just a couple. The basic premise of Barth’s et al. understanding of the analogia fidei versus an analogia entis is anthropological; but of course, as is typical with Barth, anything that is anything in theology is first and always Christological. What is underwriting Barth’s doggish commitment to his ‘analogy of faith’ is the biblical teaching of a radical human depravity. You will notice that as McCormack was sketching these things for us, he kept pressing that in Barth’s theology God acts both sovereignly and unilaterally for us; if He didn’t, then knowledge of God left to our own machinations could only conclude in idolatry. So, for Barth (for me) there is no ‘grace perfecting nature’ or ‘revelation perfecting reason,’ there is only the impossible possibility that has actualized in the event of God’s free choice to Self-reveal for us in Christ. In Barth, as we also observed in McCormack’s development, there is nothing inherent to natural humanity (because of the fall) that could correspond, even analogously, to a knowledge of who and what God is; again, such endeavor could only end in an idolatry of self-projection. This is key, when considering Barth’s thinking on his ‘analogy of faith’: i.e., human language in itself, or by nature (precisely because of the fall) has been lobotomized to the point that it can only operate in sub-human ways. As such, when a ‘natural’ person, such as the classical philosophers, attempt to think God, all they can do is build a construct based on negation; all they can do is look within, negate their obvious finity, and then posit that God must be humanity’s opposite and thus infinite so on and so forth.

Hopefully, if you were wondering about these things, this post has cleared it up for you.

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909—1936 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 10 n. 32.

[2] Ibid., 10-11 n. 33.

[3] Ibid., 16-18.

How the Inscrutable unReality of Darkness Keeps Barth and the Athanasian Reformed from Incoherence and a Dogmatic Christian Universalism

I want to talk about God’s shadow side. The rip against Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth and the Athanasian Reformed is that their respective doctrine of election leads to some form of Christian universalism (some are okay with that). But in fact, it doesn’t. People like Keven Vanhoozer, Robert Letham, Roger Olson et al. have critiqued Torrance, Barth, and Evangelical Calvinists, like myself, with reference to what they take to be our theological Achilles heel. Because they think from within an Aristotelian or Stoic theory of causation in a God-world relation, they cannot imagine how the Evangelical Calvinist, after Barth, Torrance et al. can escape the conclusion of a dogmatic Christian universalism, or to a total incoherence in our respective proposal. Their problem revolves around the Athanasian Reformed’s understanding of a universal atonement. Because of their a priori commitment to said theory of causation (as already noted), in their minds, if Jesus died for all, as archetypal humanity, then all humanity eo ipso must be justified, saved before God. This is why they can only affirm particular redemption or limited atonement; it is because of their respective theory of causation. God, like the originating spoke in the wheel of salvation is necessarily committed to that particular wheel. He cannot be related to other wheels, but only the wheel He has first chosen to be a spoke in; that is, in the one particular wheel that makes the vehicle of salvation turn (not to mention what God is). God becomes enslaved to a certain type of authority as conceived of by Aristotle vis-à-vis His relation to the created order. In order, for this type of authority to be effectual what He decrees must obtain; otherwise, as the story goes, His creation can thwart His power, by undercutting His choice to redeem. So, to ensure this thwarting cannot happen, the absolute decree (decretum absolutum) says that God will save this s-elect group of people, who He has arbitrarily chosen based upon His remote and hidden will; and there is nothing the created order can do to undercut His authority in this program of salvation. But again, remember this all stems from a theory of Divine authority that has first been concocted by some sort of profane discovery the philosophers have made about divinity, without ever being confronted with that Divinity in the face of Jesus Christ.

If the above theory of authority (sovereignty) is repudiated, that is, the one constructed by the profane philosophers, based upon speculative means, then the whole double jeopardy such theologians fear, as they think from their theory of salvation, no longer exists. This is what Karl Barth et al. do; they elide this dilemma by thinking God as God has first thought and spoken Himself for us in the face of Jesus Christ. When the theologian is committed to the idea that theology can only be done after Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’) then they are freed up to think revelationally about the ways of God in the economy of salvation, and all else. Barth’s reformulation of a Reformed doctrine of election offers just this type of salve. He sees reprobation as part of the realm of darkness; in other words, as part of the non-elect ‘shadow side’ only observed because of God’s Light. So, for Barth, there isn’t a viable explanation for explaining the inscrutable reality of darkness (as a metaphor for evil and sin). In other words, the theologian cannot know what God has not revealed; indeed “the secret things belong to God, but the things revealed belong to us” (Deut. 29:29). Under such conditions we can know why those who get saved, get saved; it is because God has pre-destined Himself for us, in order that they might be saved according to His gracious will of election for us in the elect humanity of Jesus Christ. And this is precisely the point at which people like Vanhoozer et al. claim some type of incoherence in the doctrine of election/reprobation in the theology of Barth et al. They for some reason haven’t accepted the fact that Barth et al. are attempting to think from the interior rationality  of the Gospel implications itself, rather than from a speculative and discursive understanding of how divine causality ostensibly is supposed to work.

Let’s hear from Barth in his own words as he comments on Genesis 1:

. . . The one confronts the other; light darkness, and darkness light. Nor is there any question here of symmetry or equilibrium between the two. They confront one another in such a way that God separates the light, which He acknowledges to be good, from the darkness. “In darkness and night remnants of that primal state intrude into the ordered world” (Zimmerli). The reference can be only to the darkness mentioned in v. 2 as the predicate of chaos, for otherwise it would mean that darkness was also created by God and found good in its own way. Since this is not the case, it is obvious that the antithesis to light, and therefore to the good creation of God, is chaos. And it belongs necessarily and integrally to the creation which begins with the creation of light that God rejects chaos, that He has for it no creative will or act or grace, but has these for light and light alone. Commencing in this way, creation is also a clear revelation of His will and way. Whatever may become a reality from and for chaos, by the commencement of the divine creation it is separated as darkness from light, as that which God did not will from that which He did, as the sphere of non-grace from that of His grace. Only from the majesty and supreme lordship of God is it not separated. Since darkness cannot offer any resistance to the emergence of light; since it has to acquiesce in the fact that light is separated from it; since it is later given a name as well as enough that it is not exempt from the sway of God, but has to serve Him in its own way, so that there can be no question of an absolute dualism. Here, then, and at root in the processes depicted in v. 6 f. and v. 9 f., to “divide” does not mean only to “distinguish” and “separate” but to “create order.” At the same time it is to set up an impassible barrier. Whatever else may take place between light and darkness, light will never be darkness and darkness will never be light. It is also to establish an inviolable hierarchy. However small and weak it may be, light will always be the power which banishes darkness; and however great and mighty it may be, darkness will always be the impotence which yields before light. It is light that is. Of darkness it can be said only that, as long as light is, it is also, but separated from it, marked and condemned by it as darkness, in opposition to it, as its antithesis, and at the same time serving light as its background. Darkness has no reality in itself; it is a by-product. It would like to be something in itself. Again and again it claims to be this. But it cannot make good its claim. It necessarily serves that which it tries to oppose. It is obviously in view of the place and role assigned to them in the hierarchy of creation that the existence of light and darkness are described in Job 38.19 as the secret of God, and that Is. 45.7 can and must say of darkness that God has “created” it. In this striking application of the verb bara’ there is revealed the reverse side, the negative power, of the divine activity, which we cannot, of course, deny to the divine will. The best analogy to the relationship between light and darkness is that which exists between the elect and the rejected in the history of the Bible: between Jacob and Esau; between David and Saul; between Judas and the other apostles. But even this analogy is improper and defective. For even the rejected, even Satan and the demons, are the creation of God—not, of course, in their corruption, but in the true and original essence which has been corrupted. But darkness and the chaos which it represents are not the creation of God any more than the corruption of the corrupt and the sin of the rejected. Thus a true and strict analogy to the relationship between light and darkness is to be found only in the relationship between the divine election and rejection, in the eternal Yes and No spoken by God Himself when, instead of remaining in and by Himself, He marches on to the opus ad extra [work outside of God] of His free love. When God fulfils what we recognise in Jesus Christ to be His original and basic will, the beginning of all His ways and works in Himself, He also accomplishes this separation, draws the boundary and inaugurates this hierarchy. This is what is attested by the story of creation in its account of the work of the first three days, and particularly in its account of the work of the first day.[1]

Barth’s theology, et alia after Barth, is slavishly kataphatic in orientation. In other words, like many of the Patristics, his theology focuses on the economy of God, and what God has freely chosen to reveal about Himself and His ways. What Barth develops from this, as it pertains to election/reprobation, is that only what God creates is indeed elect. In an asymmetrical relationship to this, that which is not created remains in the realm of the reprobate and inscrutable. In the incarnation, the Son does the impossible: the Son assumes the nothingness of the darkness, which humanity itself had been plunged into in rupture with God’s goodness, by assuming flesh (assumptio carnis), and dissolves the nothingness of nothingness, banishing it into outer darkness in the shadow of His resurrection Light. Even with its banishment the realm of nothingness, or hell, remains; but only in inscrutable ways, since the conditions for all to be ‘saved,’ to experience God’s election for them in the humanity of Jesus Christ, has already been actualized in the only real humanity around—which is Christ’s resurrected and ascended humanity.

When Vanhoozer et al. want to claim that Barth, and those following him, are incoherent if they don’t accept a Christian universalism, err. They err because they are attempting to impose a procrustean bed of their own making on top of Barth’s et al. thinking when it comes to a doctrine of election and salvation. It is procrustean, as noted earlier, because Barth starts with a different theological ontology than they do. As a result, he, and those following, can boldly claim that Christ died for all, and at the same time reject a dogmatic Christian universalism; and then still be operating from within the rationality of the implications that the Gospel hisSelf presents through His Self-exegesis of God for the world (see Jn. 1:18; 3:16 etc.)

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/1 §41 The Doctrine of Creation: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 121-22.

Sin as Primarily Relational Rather than Forensic

Often you will see me emphasizing the sin/grace matrix as a relational rather than a purely forensic reality. This bears out only if the One we have sinned against is in fact a personal rather than monadic law-like being. Sin is personal and relational because, first, God is a relation of triune persons. At root our relationship to Godself is indeed based upon the correspondence God has first (before the foundations of the world) established for us in His imago Dei (cf. Col. 1.15), in His free and gracious election to be with us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. So the ground of our relationship to God is necessarily relational and personalist insofar that our being, as human, is first grounded in God’s being to be human for us. When the first sin happened, Adam’s or ‘humanity’s’ being with God was ruptured requiring that our beings be restored or reconciled unto their originating ground as that was and is found in God’s triune life. Were there ‘legal’ consequences attending this fall as well? Yes. But those were only the external aspects of the real problem, which was a broken heart that no longer pumped from the vessels of God’s heart for us in Jesus Christ. That is to say, there is a deeper problem behind what might conclude in other expressions that may entail legal as well as other matters.

Matt Jenson offers good insight on how the aforementioned is fleshed out in the theology of Karl Barth:

Because sin is directed against a person rather than an abstract law of nature, relational rather than juridical categories are the fitting conceptual tools to describe it (IV/1, p. 140). The metaphor of incurvature, which carries with it the implication of having curved away from a relationship or relationships, fits well this relational character of sin. Sin is the refusal to conform to our determination in Christ to be relationally constituted and relationally directed. And the fact that even in isolation which the metaphor conveys one cannot escape the remainder of the relationships which have been shunned underscores Barth’s point that sin can only ever be self-contradiction, stopping short of self-transformation or the realization of a real, alternate possibility. Sin can only be an ‘impossible possibility’ (IV/1, pp. 409-10; IV/2, p. 495; IV/3.1, p. 463).[1]

[1] Matt Jenson, The Gravity of Sin (New York: T&T Clark a Continuum Imprint, 2006), 152.

Barth, The Chief of Sinners?

I’ve been having an exchange on Facebook with a Lutheran orthodox interlocutor. We remain friendly, and have over the years, but clearly we’re going to disagree over Barth. What remains of issue for many (including myself) is the continuous infidelity of Barth’s life with Charlotte Von Kirschbaum. If I hadn’t so ingested the theological themes of Barth into my own theology over the past many decades it would be easy to say I want nothing to do with him; but of course, I have ingested his themes, theologically. My interlocutor’s critique of Barth is twofold: 1) he thinks Barth’s theology is erroneous, particularly with reference to a doctrine of Scripture (which of course really is just a subset of Barth’s superstructural doctrine of election), and 2) he says he would never learn from someone who lived openly in unrepentant sin. I countered that theologians throughout the centuries of the church’s history is replete with other examples of high profile theologians who lived in unrepentant sin. This neither justifies the sin, nor does it necessarily negate the theologian’s capacity to have spoken accurately about God (Balaam’s ass did, the rocks could have etc.) What this recognition does do though is that it remembers that theology is done by fallen humans who are simul iustus et peccator (‘simultaneously justified and sinner’). This never excuses the sinner from their sin, only the blood of Jesus Christ can do that; but again, it holds things in perspective. I used this logic, with reference to Thomas Aquinas’ apparent sin of gluttony (which isn’t fully established), in dialogue with my interlocutor; this was his response:

It’s reasonable to believe that most of the celebrated theologians in the history of the church have not lived in unrepentant sin for decades. I’m sure it has happened in some cases, but it’s not plausible to think that it has been widespread.

I feel for you man, but there’s no point in trying to insinuate that others did it too to make Barth’s case look like it’s not so egregious. You might be able to make a case that theology and the character of the theologian are two separate things, but suggesting that other theologians might have a similar history of sin is really not the way to go, since this is nothing but speculation and comes close to bearing false witness.

And my response to that:

actually the opposite is the case. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Auggie, Edwards et al. come immediately to mind, and they are of course the higher profiles who we have relatively lots of background info on. It’s reasonable to think that because of the nature of the human heart, even post-justification, that sin remains pervasive and theologians of all periods remain just as susceptible to it as anyone else. This isn’t an attempt to lessen Barth’s sin, but to bring real life perspective to it. I try to avoid golden-age fallacies.

I don’t have to “suggest” anything, it’s the history that witnesses to it.

The reality is, theologians remain human. It aches the heart to imagine that even our most foundational and celebrated teachers and theologians have sin, even unrepentant sin in their hearts; but I would indeed suggest that this is in fact the rule (unless we hold to a Wesleyan doctrine of perfectionism). We are all sinners, and have fallen short of the glory of God. Just because we become justified before God as we come into spiritual union with Jesus Christ, this does not abrogate the fact that we also remain sinners (in these ‘bodies of death’ cf. Rom 7). Unrepented of sin in the Christian’s life is a sin in and of itself, but not a sin greater than the shed blood of Jesus Christ. It implicates matters of fellowship with God, not union, per se. Each and everyone of us lives with unrepentant sins, even if our heart is to do otherwise, each and every day. If Jesus were to come back in the midst of that unrepentant sin, which He surely does, when He takes someone’s life, would that unrepentant CHRISTIAN enter into the final presence of the Lord? According to Scripture: Yes! This doesn’t minimize the stain of sin, the gravity of it all in that person’s life and witness, but it does indicate that they are still a child of the living God.

As I have already exhaustively registered, I believe Barth’s sin was especially egregious; particularly as that implicated his wife and children. I see no way of softening the edge of that as my interlocutor seems to think I am attempting to do. At the end of the day if someone is going to read Barth’s theology it must be read on its merits and capacity to bear witness to Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul thought it was possible for people who had all types of mal-intent (murderous even towards, Paul) to speak accurately and proclaim clearly the entailments of the Gospel reality; to the point that he believed people were being ‘saved’ because of said witness. He writes: “15 Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: 16 The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; 17 but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice” (Phil 1.15-18). It is certainly not the ideal to go to such people as your “teachers.” But the underlying premise, according to the Apostle, is that it is possible for someone to be living in sin, and at the same time declare, proclaim a saving and true Gospel (it’s just that in Barth’s case he has six million words of that proclamation deposited in his Church Dogmatics).

For me, it is not the ideal to go to Barth as a teacher, but I did so, for many years, without any knowledge of Barth’s life with Charlotte Von Kirschbaum. I have determined that his work, as a development of prior theologians (he isn’t as original as some like to think), in fact bears witness to Jesus Christ; indeed, and as such, it even bears witness against Barth’s own sinful lifestyle. I will never attempt to minimize the destructive, deleterious nature of Barth’s chosen sin with Charlotte; but at the same time, I cannot deny that in spite of that his theological bearings, for the most part, have a proximity to the eschatological Good News of Jesus Christ; such that it remains a weighty thing for me as I attempt to contemplate who God is, the ways of God in the world as that has been pre-destined by His free choice to be God for and with us, and not without us.



Against the Kingdom of the Heretics: Jesus is God, Theanthropos

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. -John 1.1

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. -Colossians 1.15-20

The deity of Jesus Christ is key. If He is not Deus incarnatus (‘God incarnate’) then He cannot be Deus revelatus (‘God revealed’). And if God be not revealed we are of all people most to be pitied. If God is salvation for us, then no matter what magnitude of sophistication is mustered, we must become little gods striving to save ourselves; we must somehow bridge the ditch between God’s holiness and our relative filthiness (before the Holy God). And yet such a task would require more than even an Übermensch (‘Superman’) could hope to muster. If God upholds all things by the Word of His power, if God is before all created things (as the Creator), then an attempt for humanity simpliciter to reach God on God’s terms would require that we become God ourselves. Of course, this is the original lie the Serpent fed Eve and Adam; i.e., that we could be as God. You can maybe better appreciate the need for God to be God for us if we have any hope of being with God, on His terms, in the beatific bliss that He has always already been in Himself.

Unfortunately, theologians such as Dale Tuggy, Steven Nemes et al. have imbibed the lie that Jesus is a creature; that Jesus is a subordinate to the singularity of God’s unitarian being as the actus purus. For such theologians Jesus is nothing more than an organon, an instrument, a demi-urge of Gnostic ilk. Jesus becomes a ladder, an exemplar, a bodhisattva, who shows the way to release into the eternal One through an attainment of special knowledge that Jesus has been suffused with. Of course, such thinking, such christological heresy has been engaged with rather decisively by the ecumenical church councils in the 4th and 5th centuries, respectively. Karl Barth picks up on the biblical and patrological thinking as he pens the following:

This is because it is already God’s Word as Creator. That according to His Word God wills to draw us to Himself, to reconcile us to Himself, and finally to redeem us (making a new heaven and a new earth and ourselves its inhabitants), is something which He has already promised in creating heaven and earth and ourselves by His Word. Revealing and speaking this Word to us, He tells us only that He will stand by the promise of His Word as Creator, and fulfill it. Luther’s exposition of all things were made through him (Jn. 1.3) has to be considered if we are fully to understand the inner scope of Gen. 1.3f: “In this way St. John indicates and proves forcefully that the Son of God who is here the image of the invisible God is not created or made. Before the world, all creatures and even angels were created, and before all things commenced, the Word or Speech, and that without it nothing was made that was made. This Word or Speech is from the creation of the world, over four thousand years before Christ was born and man made; yea, it was the bosom of the Father from all eternity. If this is the case, then the Word must be higher and greater than all created things, i.e., it must be God Himself, for apart from God the Creator everything was created—all creatures, angels, heaven, earth, man, and every living thing. But John says that when in the beginning God created all things, the Word was already and had its being. He does not say that God created the Word, or that the Word became, but that the Word was already. From this is follows that the Word was neither created nor made. It is not a creature, but all things were made by it, as is made clear in the passage, and therefore it must be God if the principle is established that the Word was before all creatures. It is a very lofty way of speaking of the divine nature and majesty of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to say that in His divine essence He is the Word of the eternal Father. There is, therefore, no doubt, and reason can conclude, that if the Word was from the beginning, before all things commenced to be, it follows the same Word is God. Reason can clearly distinguish that if anything exists and has its being before the world and the creation of all creatures, it must be God, for apart from the creature we can speak only of the Creator. All that exists is either the Creator Himself or else His creature—God or creation. But the Holy Spirit speaks through St. John and testifies: ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ and again: ‘All things were made through him,’ etc. The Word therefore cannot be counted among the creatures, but has its eternal being in the Godhead, and from this is follows invincibly and incontrovertibly that the same Word is God, as St. John also concludes” (Exposition of John, chs. 1—2, 1537-38, W.A. 46, 547, 29).[1]

It seems incredible that anyone who knows the history of biblical interpretation, or who knows Koine Greek, could arrive at any other conclusion that Jesus is God ensarkos. Sadly, once the person crosses that line they are no longer Protestant, post-Protestant, or biblically Christian; they are now in the kingdom of the cults, the kingdom of the heretics. And if the logic above was missed it is simply an elaboration, really, of Colossians 1.15-20. Jesus was and is always already before all created things. The Pauline theo-logic is crystal here: if the Son, who is the Christ, is before all created things, then eo ipso He is in fact the true God; He is a hypostases in the Monarxia (‘Godhead’).

As was noted: since Jesus is God for us, God in the flesh; God is revealed. And if God is revealed from within the frailties of human flesh in the incarnation this entails that God has deigned, has freely chosen to speak to us, for us, and with us by the Spirit. And if God has entered into the dust and dreg of these fallen human bodies in the particular human body of the Man from Nazareth, this means that we have hope. This means that we can genuinely experience peace with the living God because the living God has freely elected to be peace for, with, and in us through the mediatorial, priestly, and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. It is because the Holy and living God has so stooped that the filthy and wretched fallen humanity can be exalted in the risen, ascended and exalted humanity of Jesus Christ. It is through God’s participation with us, in Jesus, the Theanthropos, that we can now truly participate with Him at His Right Hand where there are pleasures forevermore. This is the ‘peace to all men’ that the angelic host announced to the shepherds on that cold and dark night so long ago in the hills of the Galilee. This is the Evangel, the Good News, that Christ is risen; and in His divinized humanity and humanized divinity (without admixture between the two), as we say Yes and Amen from His Yessed and Amened life for us, it is in this doubly consubstantiating combine wherein we are saved. But only if Christ is indeed God for us; and indeed, He is. amen amen


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/1 §41 The Doctrine of Creation: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 115-16.