Book Reviews

Geordie Zielger’s: Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F. Torrance. On God’s Freedom and Grace in Creation in Critique of Barth

I am continuing my read through of Geordie Ziegler’s published dissertation published by Fortress Press (thank you Olga for the review copy, and Geordie for having it sent to me) entitled: Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F. Torrance. As I noted previously instead of doing a standalone book review I am going to do a running review and engage with parts of the book that stand out to me along the way; this post represents one of those serial reviews and engagement.

What stood out to me in the following, from Geordie’s research, has to do with Torrance’s appropriation of the concept that God has always been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but that being Creator and even Incarnate is something new for God; something that is associated with God’s grace which is an act for the other generated, as it were, by God’s triune life of eternal love. As you will see, Geordie makes an interesting distinction at this point though, a distinction between how Torrance conceives of God’s grace versus Barth (and this distinction might actually say more about the reading of Barth that Geordie has adopted rather than Barth himself—that’s what I need to find out further). Let me share the quote in full length (a few paragraphs worth), and then I will respond with a bit more push back. Here’s Geordie on TFT and God’s freedom to be gracious:

How: in Freedom

How does God create? While Torrance emphatically asserts that there is an ontological correspondence between the being and activity of God in se and ad extra, this does not detract from his insistence that the ad extra of creation is an utterly new event for God. The acts of God ad extra are acts of God’s will, whereas the activity of God ad intra in the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit are eternal activities of God’s nature. Creation is neither eternal in the way that God is eternal, nor is it necessary. Thus, there is no logical link between creation and generation. Because creation is brought into being by a definite act of God’s will and freedom, it must be affirmed as ex nihilo. God “does not beget out of himself but wonderfully brings into being out of nothing.”133 The newness of the act of creation is in fact an integral element in the logic of Grace.

This means that while God has always been Father, he is not always Creator. Creator is something (and consequently someone) God became. At this juncture, the important point to emphasize in Torrance’s thought is that God’s ontological becoming does not mean ontological change. Ontology is not constituted by or dependent upon soteriology. God’s ontology is such that “without ceasing to be what he eternally is” he is free “to be other than himself, and to bring into being what is entirely different from what he has done before.”134 Because God’s acts are his acts-in-being and his being-in-action, for God to do new acts implies that his being is “always new while always remaining what it ever was and is and ever will be.”135 In this sense, Torrance can affirm with Jüngel, that “[God’s] eternal being is also a divine becoming.”136 Yet for Torrance the language of becoming is not to evoke potential or development, but the overflow of God’s eternal fullness.137 The act of creation does not expand God’s being, for he is life in himself. Yet as life and aliveness, God’s being is also dynamic. Thus for God becoming is fitting, but not necessary; free, yet not arbitrary.

Thus the newness of the act of creation does not imply its strangeness. In all of its non-necessity, creation is entirely fitting. Because it is as the Father that God is Creator, and not visa versa, creation can be understood truly as an act of love. God’s power to create flows from his intrinsic nature as love; the eternal Father freely shares the fullness of his love in fellowship with that which he creates.138 As Father, God is “essentially generative or fruitful in his own Being, and it is because he is inherently productive as Father that God could and did freely become Creator or Source of all being beyond himself.”139 The work of creation “is activated” and “flows freely” out of the Father’s eternal love of the Son, that is, from the life and love of the eternal God. In this sense, creation (and incarnation) cannot be said to be an after-thought. Creation is a free act of God’s will. Thus, the motion of Grace ad extra is fitting to who God is inwardly.140

At this point an important difference between Torrance and Barth arises—one that has significant implications within contemporary theology. While Torrance affirms the fittingness of the motion of Grace ad extra to who God is inwardly, he does not consider Grace per se to be an activity of the immanent Trinity. God in himself is not Grace to himself. Grace itself is not a divine perfection. The Father is not gracious to the Son, nor the Son gracious to the Father, nor is the Spirit the communion of Grace between the Father and the Son. What the triune persons share among themselves in the eternal communion of their life is more appropriately defined as love, not Grace. Grace specifically is that eternal movement within the Trinity turned outward beyond the Trinity. For Torrance, to blur this distinction, and to insist (as Barth does) that Grace as such is one of the divine perfections, is to deny the gospel of Grace itself. Grace by necessity cannot be necessary.[1]

Much to affirm, if not all. But it is the very last clauses (which I’ve emboldened) which I find most striking about what Geordie is getting at. As we can see for the bulk of what Geordie has written, it is pure Torrance description, relative to his Athanasianly influenced theology, but it is how that is then used to offer a substantial critique of Barth (almost in passing) that intrigues me the most about this section. It is interesting to me that Geordie makes this critique in a section entitled “How: in Freedom;” it’s interesting to me because I am positive that the Barthian response, at this juncture, would be to refer precisely to this very reality in God: i.e. his freedom. Indeed, it is by pressing into this idea of God’s Freedom that someone like Bruce McCormack can elevate the doctrine of election in Barth’s theology as constitutive of God as Triune and Creator in the first place (which is what George Hunsinger critiques, and thus serves as the basis for the so called Barth Wars), and at the same time avoid collapsing God’s being into creation as if creation is necessary.

So whether or not we follow McCormack’s reading of Barth, or Hunsinger’s, either way in Barth’s thought itself God’s Freedom as a primal reality, in my view, would allow Barth to escape Geordie’s critique from the Torrancean perspective. Hmm, an interesting conundrum and much to contemplate.

[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 38-9.


The Early Barth. The anti-Metaphysical Barth. The Biblicist Barth.

Kenneth Oakes in his book Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy in his first chapter entitled The Earlier Barth concludes a section in that chapter with a summary of the characteristics that formed the core of who the young Barth was. This was a time prior to pencilbarthBarth’s ‘conversion’ to the Barth that so many have come to know through his more mature writings found in his Church Dogmatics. What’s of interest, at least to me, is that as we see in Oakes’ development, even in the young Barth there are many recognizable traits that will emerge later in the maturing and older Barth. Here is what Oakes writes:

A number of the young Barth’s intuitions and practices have now been covered. Barth’s earlier theology is stamped with ethical, experiential, and individualistic characteristics. It is focused on the ‘historical’ and the concrete over the transcendental and the abstract, and is highly suspicious of the effects of metaphysics upon the doctrines of God and Christ. Particularly worrisome are the neutralization, reification, and intellectualization of God at the hands of metaphysics. Faith is generated by God, and it is primarily an affective and practical matter that is either indifferent or hostile towards apologetics and metaphysics and impervious to the yet good and necessary work of historical and psychological knowledges. In a telling sign of his freedom from historical Protestantism and Protestant confessions, Barth can even criticize the Reformers for understanding faith as a matter of believing certain things to be true. Revelation is the inner communication of an objective Jesus Christ, and this revelation is objective even if not primarily cognitive. Barth can even call religion and the religious life ‘irrational,’ insofar as they lie outside the strictures and sphere of transcendental consciousness even if they still motivate and ground cultural consciousness in reality. There is a fundamental passivity of the human being before revelation, but the human being, nevertheless, actively responds and submits to revelation. The young Barth can look favourably upon Socrates, Plato, and Kant while criticizing the re-emergence of metaphysics within theology inasmuch as what impresses him the most are Socrates’ questioning and critical spirit, Plato’s emphasis upon the good, the true, the beautiful, Kant’s ethical austerity, and the moral, self-involved nature of all three of their philosophies. Finally, while Jesus Christ should not be identified with the church or with any kind of Christian worldview, he is and should be identified with the social movement.[1]

One of the traits, noted by Oakes, that is most controversial in Barth’s theology (for people who approach Barth’s theology), and one that remains throughout Barth’s life, is his posture towards metaphysics. Later on his animism, if we can call it that, towards metaphysics is circumscribed by his heavy concentration upon Christ, and even more pointedly, by his doctrine of election. Instead of an Augustinian a priori method for thinking God, for Barth there is a focus on an a posteriori method for knowing God; by encountering the personal Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. For Barth Christ exhausts God’s Self-revelation, as such any a priori metaphysical reflection about Godness detached from Jesus Christ becomes a non-starter for Barth. Thomas Torrance makes this clear when he writes of Barth’s theology:

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]

Because of this Barth is often charged with being someone who has historicized God’s revelation; even more foreboding that Barth has Hegelianized theology; or even that he has offered a kind of positivistic theology. While some of these things may be true, at a certain level, in reality none of these charges actually take much care in attending to Barth’s reification and constructive appropriation of his own modern context. In other words, I would contend, that even though Barth was as much of a product of his own context as we are, he was self-critical (or he became such throughout his life) enough to materially move beyond some of the negative connotations of the labels that he has been tagged with.

But still, what of metaphysics? Does Barth’s ostensible allergy towards metaphysics place him at odds with the pre-critical, pre-modern tradition of the church; the tradition given shape in various streams of theological development by appeal to both Aristotelian as well as Platonic metaphysics when attempting to speak of God and his ways? There are obviously different ways to answer this, which in our North American context has resulted in what has become known as the ‘Barth Wars.’

What is clear though, particularly from Oakes’ summary, all that we have received from Barth started in seminal ways for him very early on in his theological development. Truly, Barth, the young and old was a modern theologian, but one who sought to constructively and imaginatively engage with the tradition of the church; so much so that George Hunsinger identifies what he calls the Chalcedonian pattern framing Barth’s theology. This is why I personally am edified by Barth so much; while he serves as a polarizing figure for some, he doesn’t for me. He represents a modern Christian thinker who loves Jesus Christ, and who seeks to express that love for the church of Jesus Christ in ways that engages with the whole stream of the intellectual history available to him in the Christian church. I find his focus on Jesus, and as such his de-emphasis upon metaphysics, refreshingly ‘biblical.’ Barth attempts to think from the ‘event’ of God’s Self-revelation as attested authoritatively in Holy Scripture; he attempts to allow the contours of Scripture’s themes and motifs to dictate the way he speaks of God. It is his dialectical approach, at this point, that I find truly refreshing. Barth does not attempt to artificially impose intellectualized or scholasticized ‘fixes’ on the teachings of Scripture as they find their reality in Jesus Christ; he is content to live within the tensions and pressures created by the living and ineffable God who is Triune as given literary attestation in the written Word of God. Sometimes metaphysics aren’t all they are cracked up to be, they can do more damage than good to the Word of God by imposing certain emphases and characteristics upon God that are not true to who he is as revealed in Christ and spoken to in the Bible.

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 45.

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

The ‘Young Marburg’ Barth against Charles Ryrie, Thomas Aquinas, and the Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

The first time I attended Bible College was just after I graduated high school in 1992; I attended a small Conservative Baptist Bible College in Phoenix, Arizona, at that time called Southwestern College (it is now called Arizona Christian University). I was a bible and theology major, as such I had an introduction to Systematic Theology class; it was taught by an old school theology standingthomasaquinasprofessor, meaning he was of the very conservative, almost fundamentalist type (and he was also an old guy). The text he had us use for our primary theology text was Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth. When the title says ‘Basic’, it indeed is very basic theology, almost completely cut off from any of the confessional riches available in the Protestant past. But what is typical of Ryrie’s theology relative to other “evangelically” oriented theology texts is his appeal to philosophical proofs for the existence of God in the prolegomena of the text itself.

For Ryrie’s part, the first proof for God’s existence he appeals to is the cosmological argument; he explains it this way:

General revelation comes to mankind in several ways.

1.Through Creation

1.Statement. Simply stated this line of evidence (the cosmological argument for the existence of God) points out that the universe around us is an effect which connotes an adequate cause.

2.Presupposition. This line of evidence depends on three presuppositions: (a) every effect has a cause; (b) the effect caused depends on the cause for its existence; and (c) nature cannot originate itself.

 3.Development. If something now exists (the cosmos) then either it came from nothing or it came from something which must be eternal. The something eternal in the second option could either be the cosmos itself which would have to be eternal, or chance as an eternal principle, or God the eternal Being.

To say that the cosmos came from nothing means it was self-created. This is a logical contradiction, because for something to be self-created it must exist and not exist at the same time in the same way. Furthermore, self-creation has never been scientifically demonstrated and observed.[1]

Ryrie goes on and elaborates this further, but this represents a good representation of his line of thought. Clearly there are more sophisticated presentations of this argument, starting with Thomas Aquinas himself, and even by contemporary thinkers like William Lane Craig. But the basic tenets of the argument are presented by Ryrie, and are probably what most young bible college students, seminarians, and pastors have been exposed to in their training.

I open this post up like this to actually transition to a critique of approaching theology proper, to approaching God in this way. For the rest of this post we will consider young Karl Barth and his critique of the cosmological argument for the existence of God.

The Marburg Barth

Karl Barth attended Marburg University in Germany under the watchful eye of Wilhelm Herrmann, among other theology and biblical studies professors. Barth graduated from Marburg in 1908, but did not immediately enter pastoral ministry, instead he stayed on in the Marburg area and wrote for Die Christliche Welt. Kenneth Oakes gives us more background information:

Slow to enter pastoral work immediately after his university studies, Barth stayed in Marburg for another year, working as an editorial assistant for Die Christliche Welt, a journal published under the direction of Martin Rade, a friend and colleague of Herrmann. Thus from 1908-9 Barth was allowed to imbibe more deeply the ‘modern school’ and Marburg theology….[2]

During this time, according to Oakes, Barth wrote two pieces that caused some controversy, at least for some.[3] We will consider the second piece, which has to do with Barth’s critique of the cosmological argument, and that whole mode of theologizing. Oakes details this at length for us:

The second and more revealing piece as regards theology and philosophy is a talk Barth wrote against the cosmological proof for the existence of God. In this piece, Barth begins with an explanation of the argument’s formulations in Thomas Aquinas, the defence of the possibility for knowing God in Vatican I, Leo the XIII’s recommendation of Aquinas in the 1879 Aeterna Patris, and the censuring of the agnosticism of modern philosophy and philosophy of religion in the 1907 encyclical Pascendi. He covers the distinction between the natural knowledge of God and the revealed knowledge of God, along with their concomitant disciplines, natural and revealed theology. He then considers the cosmological argument as found within J.A. Becker’s work and Thomas’ five ways. He defends Thomas against the common charge of pantheism, although he thinks Thomas comes close to such a position at times. Nevertheless, Barth is still worried about the status of God’s ‘Persönlichkeit,’ a good Ritschilian concern, in Thomas’s doctrine of God. Barth wonders whether the free and textured identity and agency of God is lost when God is described in abstract and impersonal terms such as the highest thing, the most necessary being, or the first cause.

The cosmological proof has two serious problems. The first is philosophical. Barth brings the full weight of Kant’s critical philosophy onto the proof. Following Kant, he argues that the cosmological proof tacitly depends upon the ontological proof, and that the ontological proof (or at least Anselm’s version of it) fails insofar as the proposition ‘God is’ is deemed to be analytic (the predicate ‘is’ adding nothing to the subject ‘God’). The cosmological proof fails, as the ontological proof on which it relies is specious. The second problem is theological. Barth argues that even if the cosmological proof were true, what it proves would remain quite different from the God of Persönlichkeit:

Such is clear: the way of the syllogism, of the subordination of individual, empirical things underneath universal concepts, absolutely does not reach a final, real, and in this respect transcendent being, but only to the idea of one, to the idea of a being about whom there is nothing to say other than that he is the negation of his not-being on the one hand, and that he is absolutely prior to everything finite on the other; by its construction and the concepts used such a being remains entirely within the world.

By definition, philosophical metaphysics can neither reach the God beyond the cosmos nor his specific ‘personality,’ and in this judgment Kant and the modern theology are in complete agreement.[4]

Remember, this is the young Barth, barely a college graduate, but this type of critique from him in regard to ‘natural theology’ and knowledge of God given foundation through philosophical proofs, would perdure in Barth’s thought and life throughout.

In a very reduced sense Barth is arguing that the philosophers might be able to prove a conception of godness all day and all night, but at the end or beginning of the day all they’ve proven is something they were able to conceive of through their own intellectual prowess; i.e. they haven’t begun to access the holy of holies and touch the feet of the living and true God.

I agree with Barth, in contrast to Ryrie, Aquinas, Craig, et al., and this of course is what makes Barth such a controversial figure for so many evangelical theologians (young and old) to this day. They fundamentally disagree with Barth’s critique of something like the cosmological argument since they base so much of their theological methodology and approach upon the foundations laid by people like Thomas Aquinas and the rest of that tradition which is imbibed deeply by the post-reformation reformed orthodox theologians.

What This Has Meant To Me

As I noted, my seminal introduction to systematic theology started with Charles Ryrie, and a very basic presentation of the cosmological argument or proof as a credible foundation for how I could know with certainty that God exists, and that he exists in a certain way. But this has never satisfied me. Later I went to Multnomah Bible College, this time I was presented with more sophisticated instruction, but at base the way I was taught to think of God from Ryrie remained the way I was taught to think of God by my professors at Multnomah. It wasn’t till I attended seminary, at Multnomah’s seminary, where I was finally introduced to historical theology, and I began to explore, quite deeply, the history of ideas and how they were given formation. It was a breath of fresh air to realize that there was another way, a way that I believed was more faithful to the God I was encountering over and again as I read Holy Scripture.

I was introduced to Barth and Torrance (a bit), in seminary as well. I graduated from seminary in 2003, but it wasn’t until about 2006 that I started reading Barth and Torrance intensely, and I found what I was looking for in their critiques and way of thinking; particularly as that has to do with this very issue. I had already given up on the idea that God could or should be “proven,” but it wasn’t until I hit Barth and Torrance that I really appreciated how to work that out by focusing on revelational theology; by focusing on Christ as the key. Yes, in seminary, in my studies of John Calvin and Martin Luther et al. I was introduced to what is called kataphatic or ‘positive theology,’ and I relied on both Calvin and Luther, deeply, to enable me to move forward into a revealed theology approach.  But what I found in Barth and Torrance were teachers who took that to the next level, and offered a grammar and way to think that filled out what I only latently picked up through Calvin and Luther.

It is refreshing to know that God cannot nor should not be “proven.” If we think he can be the foundations for how we are thinking of God, by definition and method, are not supplied by God in Jesus Christ, but instead by our own trained wits. Our wits will always let us down, but the Word of God will endure forever.


[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (USA: Victor Books, 1986), 28-9.

[2] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 28.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4]Ibid., 29-30.

The ‘Young’ Karl Barth and Wilhelm Herrmann’s Impact on Barth’s Anti-Natural Theologizing and other Miscellanies

I am currently reading Kenneth Oakes’ published PhD dissertation researched at the University Aberdeen entitled: Karl Barth on Thoelogy&Philosophy. The copy I have is a review copy graciously sent to me by Oxford University Press. I will be posting from this book along the way as I read it, which will culminate ultimately in a final summarizing “book review;” but I intend these barthyoungposts to be like mini-reviews of Oakes’ book along the way—even if what they really are end up only being my reflections upon whatever I am reading at a particular moment from Oakes’ book.

I am currently in the early part of chapter 1, the chapter is entitled, appropriately: The Earlier Barth. For anyone who has even spent a cursory moment with Barth they will be expecting some sort of mention of one of Barth’s more prominent teachers, the famed Wilhelm Herrmann (1846–1922). As Oakes develops the impact that Herrmann had upon the young Barth that stands out to me are the contours of thought that bleed through into Barth’s lifetime project; one of which is his segregation of “religion” from history and philosophy. Oakes’ sketches this type of development in Herrmann this way; you will notice the genealogy that not only impacted Herrmann, but as consequence of relation, impacted Barth’s theology one way or the other.

The struggle for the Selbständigkeit of religion in modern German and Prussian theology has a long and distinguished history. It found one of its most forcible exponents in a young Friedrich Schleiermacher and his Reden (1799, 1806). In the second of his Speeches Schleiermacher handles the Wesen, or essence of religion and distinguishes religion and religious knowing from both ethics and metaphysics. Piety or religion, a young Schleiermacher famously argues, is neither a doing (Tun) nor a knowing (Wissen), and so religion is independent of both ethics and metaphysics. Hermann adopted and carried on Schleiermacher’s quest for the establishment of religion’s independence. This task was most notably undertaken in his 1876 Die Metaphysik in der Theologie and 1879 Die Religion im Verhältnis zum Welterkennen und zur Sittlichkeit. In both of these works Herrman sharply distinguishes the ‘knowing’ characteristic of ‘knowledge’ of the world and of religion, granting the latter a free and independent sphere. These works antedate a similar attempt to distinguish faith and metaphysics by Albrecht Ritschl in his 1881 Theologie und Metaphysik. In this slim but influential volume Ritschl argued for the removal of metaphysics and philosophy (especially the philosophies of Aristotle and Hegel) from theology so as to extract any vestige of natural theology. Ritschl even thought that orthodox Lutheran dogmatics, and in particular the works of F.H.R. Frank and C.E. Luthardt, were guilty of dabbing in natural theology. In the cases of Schleiermacher, Herrmann, and Ritschl, establishing theology’ independence meant distinguishing between religion, ethics, and metaphysics.[1]

I am sure that none of these contours of thought, for those familiar with Barth’s theology in general will surprise anyone. But I find it interesting to have a trace understanding (if not more) of Barth’s informing theology since, for one negative reason, so many of Barth’s critics attempt to guilt him by his various associations and lines of thought. In other words, Barth’s critics often think that just because they can identify some sort of Kantian, Hegelian, Schleiermacherian, or other influences in Barth’s thought, that by virtue of that alone he should at best be regarded as heterodox and not orthodox. But honestly such criticism of Barth is simply engaging in, for one, the genetic fallacy, and for two, poisoning the well; there are numerous other fallacies engaged in when critiquing Barth along these lines. All I can say to such critiques is: so what! We all have informing voices, and we all are conditioned by those voices one way or the other. The salutary thing about Barth, the genius thing about Barth is that more than others, in some respects, he was able to become aware of his informing voices, critically aware, and in turn offer critique where it was necessary, and appropriate under the pressures of his christological concentration where it was appropriate to do so.

As Oakes continues to write he reiterates the impact that Herrmann had upon the ‘young’ Barth:

His commitment and dedication to Herrmann ensures that Barth’s earlier thought bears the marks of centuries of reflection and debate within Prussian and German intellectual life. His thought, like that of all pupils, is the outcome of wars waged and treatises made long before him. The education in which he was formed was not only broadly post-Kantian in its distinction between religion and culture, but also had dealt with and responded to higher criticism of Scripture, a secularized reading of church history and confessions, and the History of Religions school. This inheritance meant that some distinctions were already put in place for Barth: a strict split between faith and history and the God of faith and the god of metaphysics. Otherwise put, there was a strong distinction between (1) the individual’s experience of faith and God’s love and forgiveness; and (2) either a transcendental or empirical determination of the human subject and its knowing, and being in general. The work of theology falls within the first realm, while the work of psychology, history, and philosophy in the second.[2]

Again, for anyone who knows Barth these themes are not surprising at all. But what might be enlightening to realize is that just like any of us Barth had a context, an informing context; a context that shaped and conditioned Barth’s life’s work one way or the other. One thing in particular that stands out to me as we look at this sketch of Barth’s background is the aversion to ‘natural theology’ that his teacher[s] had. Often we will hear it asserted that Barth developed his anti-natural theology because of his German/Nazi context; indeed, it well may be the case that this reality heightened this mode for Barth. But as we can see through Oakes’ development this anti-natural theological bent was already seeded into Barth’s life by his teacher Herrmann and the context he was surrounded by, theologically, as just a young virtuoso. There is more to this background, particularly with reference to this aversion to natural theology, but we will have to get into that later. Nevertheless, I think we should bookmark this point in regard to Barth’s development. He indeed ended up being known for his anti-natural theology, but this was just one thing of many he inherited from his intellectual predecessors and informers.

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 22.

[2] Ibid., 27.

Book Review: ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition. Natural Leather, Brown, Flap with Strap

ESV7ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition: natural leather, brown, flap with strap. ISBN – 10 1-4335-52760/ISBN – 13 1-4335-5276-2. PP. 1584. Price: $129.99. Publisher: Crossway: Wheaton, IL., 2016.

I would like to thank the fine folks at Crossway for sending me along a copy of the ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition; the version they sent me is the natural leather, brown, flap with strap style, resembling something you might find in the saddle bag of famous theologian and pastor, Jonathan Edwards. Indeed Crossway’s description of the Bible notes the intentional move to model this Bible after Edwards’ Blank Bible:

Patterned after the Bible that Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century preacher and theologian, used to record more than 5,000 notes about God’s Word, the ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition features a full, blank page next to every page of Bible text. Created for Bible readers looking for as much space as possible for sermon notes, personal reflections, prayers, or artwork, this edition features cream-colored paper and a durable binding to ensure that it lasts a lifetime. (source)

The story goes that Edwards’ wife sewed blank pages in between the pages of his Bible in order to provide the over 5,000 notes that he would eventually make as he read and preached through his Bible. This Bible, created by Crossway, will give you a sense that you are holding a bit of history and remind you of the great teachers Jesus Christ has provided for his church; including, Jonathan Edwards.

The Bible itself is rather big (6.5 in x 9.25 in and 70.7 ounces), and the font is relatively small (7.5), although it is readable. But other than that, the Bible itself is put together well. The brown natural level feels sturdy, and looks appropriate for a Bible that sells itself as a replica of Edwards’ Bible. The paper used for the pages of the Bible are cream colored, which I like, and are a very sturdy paper which will not be prone to bleeding, for any note takers who insist on continuing to use highlighters rather than colored pencils (which is my preference when highlighting). Between each and every page of this Bible there are indeed blank pages of paper where someone could make voluminous notes; I am guessing way more than 5,000 (depending on the size of the notes). Unlike most Bibles, this particular Bible does not have Bible-land maps in the back; instead it has a “through the Bible in a year reading plan.” As the reader opens the flap of the Bible, by unwinding the strap used to keep the flap of the Bible closed (which can be a little cumbersome to undo while using the Bible in a church service, etc.), they will immediately notice a little pencil or pen holder which will hold a pencil or pen in your Bible even with the flap closed.

Overall, I would certainly recommend this Bible. It is a great looking Bible, accompanied by a great translation of the Bible, and it has the durability of a Bible (because of the quality of materials used to produce it) that will last someone a life time. If you purchase this Bible I would recommend, that as Augustine would say tolle lege, ‘take up and read,’ and read it constantly!







Sanctified By Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life, A Book Review and Highlight of Suzanne MacDonald’s Doctrine of Election

sanctifiedbygrace2Sanctified By Grace: A Theology Of The Christian Life (London/New Delhi/New York/Sydney: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2014) ISBN 978-0-567-63217-3 (hardcover) – ISBN 978-0-567-38343-3 (paperback) 264 pp. Price $39.95 (paperback)

By: Kent Eilers and Kyle C. Strobel

To begin with I would like to say thank you to Nicholas Stewart (of Bloomsbury/T&T Clark) for sending me this review copy, and also to Kyle Strobel for thinking to include me in the blog tour of this book; thank you both!


Sanctified By Grace is an edited volume by Kent Eilers and Kyle Strobel. Eilers is an Associate Professor of Theology at Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana; he has a PhD in Systematic Theology from the University of Aberdeen. Strobel is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Spiritual Formation at Biola University in La Mirada, CA; he has a PhD in Theology, also from the University of Aberdeen.

I am participating in a blog tour (sponsored by Bloomsbury/T&T Clark) of this book, Sanctified By Grace, as I alluded to earlier. My post will be one of many blog posts of this book over the next couple of weeks (here is the link to the blog tour page at the T&T Clark Blog: click here). As such this will not be a formal review, per se, but a blog post that will seek to underscore the value of this book (and it is valuable!) by highlighting, at least in my approach, one of the chapters offered in this volume. That said, I will give you all a synopsis and index of the various authors and chapter titles offered in the book.


The volume is broken into four parts, with an introduction by Eilers and Strobel as we enter the book.

Part One is entitled, The Gracious One. Here are each of the chapter titles and authors who make up this section: 1) The triune God by Fred Sanders; 2) The electing God by Suzanned McDonald; 3) The creating and providential God by Katherine Sonderegger; 4) The saving God by Ian A. MacFarland; 5) The perfecting God by Christopher R.J. Holmes. Part Two is entitled, The graces of the Christian Life. Here are the titles and authors that make up this section: 6) Reconciliation and Justification by John P. Burgess; 7) Redemption and victory by Christian Mostert; 8) Communion with Christ: Mortification and vivification by John Webster. Part Three is entitled, The means of grace. Here are the chapter titles and authors who comprise this section: 9) Scripture by Donald Wood; 10) Church and sacraments by Tom Greggs. And the final part, Part Four entitled, The practices of grace. Here are the titles and authors who comprise this part: 11) Discipleship by Philip Ziegler; 12) Prayer by Ashley Cocksworth; 13) Theology by Ellen T. Charry (a former prof of mine); 14) Preaching by William Willimon; 15) Forgiveness and Reconciliation. The volume closes with a bibliography and index.

As you can see by the material being covered in this volume it is a worthy topic for any and all serious Christians to consider and give considerable amount of time to in regard to contemplation and practice. As you can also see Eilers and Strobel did an excellent job in finding top-notch theologians and Christian thinkers and communicators as contributors for this volume.

The book, as envisioned by Eilers and Strobel, is intended to function, for one of its uses, as a volume used in college and seminary classroom teaching; i.e. as a textbook for a Christian theology class, or maybe even for a rigorous Sunday school class at church involved in Christian Education, etc. I would say, beyond a doubt, this volume achieves that mark and more! In fact I would go so far as to say that any thoughtful Christian ought to take this book up and read (tolle lege)!

To give you more of a sense of what the volume is intending at a theological level let me share what its editors, Eilers and Strobel, have written as far as the book’s aim goes:

Coordinating the doctrine of the Christian life to God’s economy of salvation and the practices which are fitting to redeemed existence is not one option among many. Rather, we suggest, this coordination between doctrine and life, belief and practices is integral to life within the movement of God’s Spirit. Within the dynamism of the Spirit’s formation, doctrine and life are pulled together in the broader picture of grace. In this sense, grace names the self-giving nature of God and his movement in the Spirit to draw believers into fellowship and sanctification. Thus, the theology of the Christian life developed here attempts to mirror the broad movement of God’s saving action – the fellowship of the triune God turned outward in self-giving in Son and Spirit and the calling of his people to fellowship and mission. (p. 7)

As you might recall from earlier Strobel is a Professor in the Institute of Spiritual Formation, and I know personally that Eilers’ heart is in the same place; the aims of this book flow naturally from both of these editor’s hearts. I.e. To take what sometimes might seem like abstract theological teaching and press it into the concrete lived realities of Christian people who are making contact with this world, inside the walls of the church and out, on a daily basis. The book is intending to inculcate an understanding of the gigantic and wondrous grace of God for us in Jesus Christ, and to do so in a way that comes with understanding and prudence. From this reader’s view the volume exceeds its aims.

I would highly recommend this book to all serious Christian thinkers! Further, for any faculty at Bible Colleges or Seminaries, and any Pastors who are involved in Christian Education and discipleship (i.e. spiritual formation) at your local churches, I would commend this volume to you with the highest amount of commendation.

Highlighting a Chapter

As I noted earlier my approach was going to be to highlight one particular chapter in this volume, and I have indeed decided on one; but this was very difficult. As I finished each chapter I thought to myself, “okay, that’s the chapter I am going to highlight!” Each chapter in this volume is that good; a page turner, and for a volume on theology that is rare to find.

The chapter I am highlighting is chapter two the electing God by Suzanne MacDonald. McDonald has her PhD in Systematic Theology from the University of St. Andrews, she currently is Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. She is also author of the book (her published PhD dissertation) Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others and Others to God (2010).

MacDonald’s particular chapter, the one we are considering here, is a compression of her thicker and more developed account articulated in her aforementioned book. Don’t get me wrong, as far as material significance, her chapter here is chalked full with deep insight relative to a Christian dogmatic doctrine of election, and how that gets cashed out within the trajectory of this volume; i.e. how election can have a ministerial role in understanding and living out the logic of God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ. MacDonald writes:

Election takes us to the heart of God’s intentions for the whole of creation. It is the setting apart of a particular people for a unique relationship with God, and to be the instruments of his promises and purposes in the world. It entails nothing less than the eternal Son taking flesh as a member of his own covenant people. It is the key to mission, serving to remind us that a central element in the calling of God’s people is to be the bearers of God’s blessing to those beyond the elect community itself. (p. 33)

We can see how MacDonald, strightaway, is going to take a route that is much less traveled than the typical way of slogging through this oft debated issue (i.e. between classical Calvinists and Arminians). Her central thesis is that our doctrine of election tells us a great deal about God, and his purposes for his people and for creation in general. She seeks to reorient the priorities that we bring to election, moving from the usual focus on individual eschatological salvation, and instead focusing on the biblical and theological contours that emerge from a doctrine of election as we, indeed, have a properly tuned perspective. (p. 33).

MacDonald’s chapter has three sections with an introduction (p. 33) that give her essay shape: 1) Broad scriptural contours (pp. 34-7); 2) Election and the Individual (pp. 37-41); 3) Election and the Triune Being of God: A contemporary controversy within Barth Studies (pp. 41-44); and a conclusion (pp. 44-5). She lays out the exegetical basis for her case in her first section by working through Old Testament themes, particularly God’s covenant faithfulness and purposiveness with his Covenant people Israel which she sees culminating in the gracious Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ for all. She then, in section two, engages with the classic debate that inheres between the classical Calvinist and Arminian in regard to election and reprobation. And in her third section she engages with an in-house debate which has been called the “Barth Wars” and/or the “Companion Controversy” between two of the foremost Barth scholars of today, both professors at Princeton Theological Seminary: Bruce McCormack and George Hunsinger. She offers compelling analysis within each of her sections, and weeds through some of the more technical issues presented by the doctrine of election in very accessible ways (for the thoughtful reader).

After her body of work she concludes that election must be focused primarily on God and his Covenant purposes in a lost and dire creation; a creation that needs her Lord! MacDonald writes this in conclusion:

… While the representative controversies about election have helped to remind us that we cannot always expect Scripture to give us straightforward answers to our pressing questions on election, neither can we afford to allow those pressing questions and debated issues to take us away from what the sweep of the scriptural narrative does indicate to us about the nature and purpose of election, and the character of the God who elects. Whatever positions we come to in any of the issues raised by the doctrine of election, the resulting picture of God – and of God’s people – must be consonant with the priorities that emerge from election as God’s chosen means to bring about the fulfillment of his promises and purposes for the whole of creation. (pp. 44-5)

MacDonald’s priority is to let the priority of God’s life impinge and condition how we think of this usually contentious doctrine. As she develops her case what emerges is a picture of an electing God who is personal, Triune, incarnational, and thus gracious. If you are looking for ammunition to forward the typical debate around election/reprobation and double predestination, then look elsewhere; MacDonald admirably elevates this doctrine into the wondrous councils of the ineffable God who indeed is full of grace.


Book Review. Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ by J. Todd Billings

billingsRejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ by J. Todd Billings (2015)

ISBN. 978-1-58743-358-0 (201 pages)

Todd Billings is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He has become my friend (at least in electronic fashion) over these past many years, and someone I look up to in regard to cultivating my development as a budding theologian; and beyond that in my development as a person who loves Jesus deeply–Todd is a person that can be looked to for that, and more as a brother in Christ.

Todd and I share something in common: he and I both have been diagnosed with rare and typically terminal and aggressive cancers; as Todd labels them “incurable” (mine is in that category as well). In 2012, at the young age of thirty-nine Todd was diagnosed with what is called Multiple Myeloma, a blood cancer for which there is no cure. As a result he underwent immediate treatment involving chemo-therapy, and ultimately a stem cell transplant. By God’s grace Todd’s treatment protocol has put his cancer into remission; the prognosis remains open, and he continues to go through what they call a maintenance protocol to attempt to keep his cancer at bay (hopefully from coming back at all).

As a result and in response to his cancer diagnosis Todd set up a Carepages account–a blog format available particularly for those struggling through some sort of life crisis, usually health related–here he would reflect periodically about his treatments, his progress, and in particular about how he was processing all of this (as a Christian theologian) through the lens of Christ and within the matrix of that relationship that he has personally with the Triune God. As things developed, and the treatments have worked for Todd, he found the strength and time to take his Carepages blog posts to the next level and place them into a book format where he talks about the Christian concept of ‘Lament.’ The following will be a brief review of his book Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ. I also wanted to say thank you to Trinity McFadden at Brazos Press for sending me a complimentary copy of Billings’ book at his request.

The first chapter–Walking in the Fog: A Narrowed Future or a Spacious Place?–Todd discusses how his future plans, in light of his cancer diagnosis, began to narrow. I would imagine–I know this was true for me when I received my diagnosis–that this experience is rather universal for those diagnosed with cancer. And yet Billings is clear that while his future plans became a future limited to living from day to day, he indeed still had and has a future hope that kept things open; indeed, it was lament itself where the future opened up as Todd’s gaze was able to turn from his immediate circumstances and upward to God in Christ. Billings writes:

In and through and by Jesus Christ, with whom Christians have been united by the Holy Spirit, we can praise, lament, petition, and discover that the story of our loss is not the only, or most important, story that encloses our lives. We discover that this spacious place–of living in Christ–is wide and deep enough for us to petition, rejoice, and also join are laments to those of Jesus Christ, who intercedes on our behalf (see Rom. 8:24). Jesus is no stranger to lament…. (p. 15).

And with this frame Todd Billings proceeds into the rest of his book to develop his theme of lament within the context of his cancer diagnosis, and his way into it as he sought to process it through the lens of Christ’s life.

Chapter two–Sorting through the Questions: The Book of Job, the Problem of Evil, and the Limits of Human Wisdom–does exactly what the title suggests: it engages with the problem of evil, and in particular taps into the book of Job to ponder the exploratory wisdom that this literature provides for the sufferer. I think this paragraph captures the gist of what this chapter works through:

Job is a powerful book that pushes us to reframe our urgent questions–identifying which questions are dead ends and which ones we should keep asking. Reading Job as part of the biblical canon along with the book of Psalms, there is no doubt that we ought to bring both praise and protest, trust and grief, before our God. Job brings all of these before God–including his raw grief and protest in the face of suffering. He laments in grief and protest against God. Later in the book, God testifies that it is Job who has “spoken of me what is right” rather than his friends who refrain from lament (Job 42:7). In the end, after presenting his case to God that the Almighty has been unjust, Job hears God’s response and is brought to the point of recanting his case. But Job does not confess lament as a sin against God, for it is not. Rather he comes to recognize the limits of human wisdom before the awesome face of the sovereign Lord: “I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes” (Job 42:6 NJPS). In his relenting, Job “admits that his own wisdom is limited; he bows to a God whose wisdom is limitless.” (p. 22)

Billings’ engagement with Job resonates with me, and my own cancer experience. I remember when I was in the thralls of my cancer, in the thralls of my chemo treatment that I had someone tell me (online) that I was in sin because I had expressed (online at my blog) that I was, at points, angry with my God and Father; that I didn’t understand why he was allowing this to happen to me, a thirty-five year old (at the time) young man with a wife and two young children. I didn’t understand why he would let me be diagnosed with an “incurable” cancer, and allow me to suffer in deep and unbelievable ways; painful ways, with fear of death crouching around the corner. This would-be counselor of mine told me that I was questioning the sovereignty of God when I expressed such ‘anger’ towards God–even though my “anger” was framed within the category of ‘lament’ and wonder at what God was doing; the reality was, was that I was still crying out to God, because I trusted him with my life. This is what so resonated with me about this particular chapter that Todd wrote in reference to his own struggle through these deep issues and types of wonderings. The conclusion that Todd comes to in this chapter, and the conclusion I came to was ultimately that God did not have to give me an exacting answer to my wonder, but he has given us something better: Himself!

You will have to read the rest of the book to experience the blessing of insight that it offers for cancer sufferers as they attempt to live in their cancer through Christ; you will realize that as you read it it is not just for cancer sufferers, but all sufferers (and thus all human beings). Just to keep things going, and to whet your appetite, here are the rest of the titles that make up the rest of the book:

  1. Lamenting in Trust: Praying with the Psalmist amid a Sea of Emotions 36
  2. Lamenting to the Almighty: Discerning the Mystery of the Divine Providence 55
  3. Joining the Resistance: Lament and Compassionate Witness to the Present and Future King 75
  4. Death in the Story of God and in the Church 93
  5. Praying for Healing and Praying for the Kingdom 111
  6. In the Valley: Toxins, Healing, and Strong Medicine for Sinners 131
  7. The Light of Perfect Love in the Darkness: God’s Impassible Love in Christ 149
  8. “I Am Not My Own”: Our Story Incorporated into Christ’s 169

As you can see, just by the chapter titles, this book engages with a host of rich issues in relation to lament and understanding how to suffer as a Christian in the everlasting arms of a faithful and loving God. On that note I would be remiss not to mention one of the driving frames of Todd’s whole book; it is something that he started his Carepages entries off with from early on in his cancer process, and it is something that I think captures best the gist of the whole book in tone and character. Todd, from early on in his process, Reformed and Confessional theologian that he is turned to one of the richest Reformed catechisms available: The Heidelberg Catechism. Todd turned to the reality that this catechism confesses as a source of comfort, and I think we can all benefit from it in the same way.

Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?

Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ;  who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins,  and delivered me from all the power of the devil;  and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head;  yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation,  and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life,  and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

The sentiment expressed in ‘Question 1. & Answer’ encapsulates the whole gist of what Todd Billings develops throughout the pages of his book. In fact as you finish the book you will see that the very last clause of the book is indeed Billings quoting the ‘Answer’ to ‘Question 1’ from the Heidelberg Catechism; it serves as his anthem and confession before God, that as he walks through the shadow of death he intends to do so with this as his deep down resolve in, before and from Christ–a resolve that we would all do well to ask the Lord to allow us to walk with, even when faced in intense ways with our mortality.

General Impression

As a fellow sojourner with Todd, one who has also walked in this particular shadowy valley, I can say that Billings’ book is what the soul thirsts for; even if it doesn’t know it, in the moment. When I was in the heat of my cancer, not knowing what the outcome was going to be, whether I was actually going to live or die, having Todd’s book at hand might not have had the impact that it has had upon me now (as someone who has currently survived my “incurable cancer”). In other words, as a sufferer, depending on what stage you are at, and what level of lucidity you have at the moment (because of your treatments, or even your fears), Billings’ book may or may not have the capacity to penetrate your heart. But even if it doesn’t now, it will later.

Nevertheless, if you are suffering with cancer, or are a family member or friend of someone who is, I would implore you to take Todd’s book up and read. It is a rich theological resource for those who are suffering, especially from the ills of cancer; and its pages are full of hooks where you can hang so many of your wandering questions in the season you are facing, personally, or as a family member or friend of someone who might be facing cancer (or other sufferings). As Todd made clear over and again, ultimately, when we suffer through things like cancer, and we are filled with questions, or even just voids where we are just groping, or just sitting there in absolute unbelief and shock with the reality of what is happening, we can cry out to God who might not answer us in the way we would like him to, but he will hear our cry and he will meet us in the cry.

A Boring Post: Are Evangelical Calvinists more ‘Scholastic’ than the Scholastics of Today?

This post will probably be a little boring for most; but hey, I’m boring (I guess you’ll have to read it to find out).

Jon Hoglund (a PhD student at Wheaton College) recently wrote a review of Richard Muller’s newly released book Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (which now I must read). westminsterassemblyIf you have read me for more than a few years, you will quickly recognize Muller’s name; I have engaged with  him quite frequently in the past—here is the Muller category (from my blog) to prove it, and this post (Let Historians be Historians, & Theologians be Theologians) in particular anticipates the gist of this current post (which illustrates that I have been thinking about this error of Muller and others for awhile). Also in line with all of this; I used to engage with R. Scott Clark (a faculty member at Westminster Theological Seminary california), when he had his blog (before the elders of his church apparently made him take it down—at least that’s what I heard happen). I used to challenge Clark on the grounds that I will be speaking of in this current post; that is, that simply reconstructing the history of the Reformed period (i.e. doing genetic and genealogical work in the area of history of ideas and Reformed theology in particular) does not materially undercut contemporary theologies of retrieval that seek to constructively appropriate various themes, motifs, and foci presented by said period of theological development. 

Getting back to Hoglund’s review of Muller’s book; what really makes it interesting, is that he actually references me and Myk and our book (and the ‘mood’ that Myk and I, and the authors who make up our edited work are advocating for), and Evangelical Calvinism (in a somewhat derisive way (I say this because as you will read there seems to be a negative underlying presupposition behind Hoglund’s rhetoric implying that we haven’t actually engaged Calvin or the Reformed tradition on its own material and even formal grounds), relative, again, to this notion that because Muller has written a work of history that anyone who appeals to Calvin must only appeal to Calvin’s theology through Muller’s authoritative reconstruction of him … i.e. story over, Hoglund and others think). Here is what Hoglund wrote:

The great contribution of this book [Muller’s] is to refocus study of Reformed orthodoxy on the exegesis from which dogmatic formulations sprung. Muller’s use of example expostions [sic] of biblical texts presents a fruitful approach to understanding these early modern theologians. Muller’s reading of the early Reformed presents a direct challenge to contemporary movements like Evangelical Calvinism that appeal to a particular narrative of Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy in order to explain their own position. Anyone who makes claim to the 16th century Reformed traditon [sic] for a doctrine of salvation needs to be familiar with this book.

Myk registered a great comment in response to Hoglund’s review, and critique of us (and also in defense, somewhat, of both Charles Partee and Julie Canlis, who Muller apparently goes after as Calvin scholars who don’t really “get” Calvin [not like Muller & co. do]—both Partee and Canlis are contributors to our book!); and then I followed suit. Myk threw it down in his comment (which was very nice to see!), and challenged Muller & co. the way Muller and family ought to be challenged; that is, if you want actually challenge Evangelical Calvinism, and people who Myk and I would associate with that; then you are going to have to do more than historical work. You see, Myk and I are more concerned with CONSTRUCTIVELY retrieving and engaging with the Reformed voices of the past (inclusive of Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and many others), THEOLOGICALLY. As I noted above, it won’t do to simply do historical work (like Muller, Clark, et al), and then believe that you have undercut or engaged with the material proposals we are putting forward, working from within the Reformed mood as we are.

Ironically, I have just picked up a book I have engaged previously; it is entitled Scholasticism Reformed: Essays in Honor of Willem J. van Asselt (of which Muller and Carl Trueman are contributors—of course!). I was just reading the first chapter this morning written by Martijn Bac and Theo Pleizier, entitled Teaching Reformed Scholasticism In The Contemporary Classroom (exciting stuff, eh). I say ironically, because as they outline how scholasticism should be taught today in theological classrooms, they develop how scholastics of the past retrieved authoritative voices for their own material and theological purposes. They highlight, interestingly, that the scholastic mode of retrieval is very much so like ours (as far as methodology, not conceptually, ultimately) (and not like Mullers, Trueman’s, Clark’s et al). That the concern, more than simply reconstructing the history of ideas and theological development; was to engage the concepts of said voices by appropriating themes and motifs that fit their broader concerns to forward the cause of theological truth. In other words, the greater concern was to organically move within the trajectory and mood set out by the past in order to constructively engage the present and future by developing the ideas of these past voices by placing them within the burgeoning and developing movement of Reformed theology (hey, that’s what we are about “Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church” semper reformanda). Here is what they wrote in regard to the scholastic method, and what was called ‘reverential exposition’:

[R]eformed theologians did not read their sources of Scripture and tradition in a historical sense, i.e., as part of an ongoing tradition, but rather as ‘authorities’ of truth. Until the breakdown of scholasticism and the historical revolution, sources were not quoted in a historical way, be they the Bible, Aristotle, Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas. A quotation did not indicate a correct historical understanding of what its original author had meant, but was read systematically as bearer of truth. From this it follows that contradictions among authorities were solved logically rather than hermeneutically. (p. 39)

I find it highly ironic that people like Muller (Hoglund), and others, would critique Myk, myself, and Evangelical Calvinism (and others who could be so associated) for imbibing the ‘spirit’ of even the post-Reformed orthodox faith (methodologically) more than their apparent heirs (Muller & co.). Although, I would not go as far as to say that we are not sensitive to the importance of getting history right; but we are even more concerned with the ‘truth’ and ideas that were presented by various voices of the past (esp. Calvin’s). If there are themes and motifs present in Calvin (like his union with Christ theology) that are open for further development; then what is wrong with seeking to develop that motif in a way that situates it within a continuing development of this theme from within a Reformed trajectory?

Here is one more example of how these authors, Bac and Pleizier, develop this idea of reverent exposition:

[T]herefore, these texts had to be explained with reverence (exponere reverenter), that is, not in historical conformity with a tradition or with the author’s expressed intention but in conformity with truth, i.e., reverently denoted in correspondence with established theological and philosophical truth. This method of reverent exposition involved a hermeneutical procedure that went back to the patristic period. To be sure, there was room for some exegesis but, as de Rijk has noted, the scholastics used the hermeneutical norm of objective truth (of the debated subjects: veritas rerum) in addition to a kind of philological exegesis employing semantic criteria for interpretation. This resulted in an incorporation of the authoritative text into one’s own conceptual framework. [Scholasticism Reformed, p. 40]

So the scholastic methodology was not about repristinating and absolutizing a period as the norming norm, but it felt the freedom to fluidly engage with the past in a way that had relevance for the present; and in a way that organically built from the trajectory provided for in the past. Or, as Barth would argue (in  his ‘The Theology of the Reformed Confessions’) to operate within the ‘spirit’ of the Reformed faith (subordinate to Scripture and thus always reforming), and not the ‘letter’, which is to appeal to a sort of repristinated procrustean bed of perceived static truth that can simply be inherited but not developed in any kind of new or meaningful way.

In summary, I would simply want to suggest that Evangelical Calvinism is actually imbibing the spirit of the Reformed faith even more so than those who are most visibly associated with the Reformed faith today (Muller & co., and others). And our mode is to primarily engage the past (Calvin and the crew) constructively with the goal of engaging the truth which transcends (but does not elide) the historical situadedness of particular people, simpliciter); but at the same time, doing so in a way that is seeking dialogical engagement with the past in order to provoke the present with themes that most magnify the name of Jesus. If Muller and company want to critique Evangelical Calvinism (and those of like mind), then they will need to be truly scholastic in form, and not just historians.

Book Review: Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent And Ascension

*Repost on John Calvin number seven. I have decided to selectively repost some of my John Calvin posts and not all of them. This book by Julie is awesome (and is on my re-read list). By the way, Julie Canlis also offers an excellent chapter in Myk’s and my book; her chapter therein is entitled: Living as God’s Children: Calvin’s Institutes as Primer for Spiritual Formation.

Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent And Ascension by Julie Canlis (2010)

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6449-9 (286 pages)

Julie Canlis has offered Calvin studies, in particular, and the Christian Church, in general, a classic before its time (given its relative “newness”). She masterfully seeks to introduce a theme, a doctrinal milieu for Calvin that simply is original; yet not novel. Her book, “Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent And Ascension,” depicts a Calvin who has his theology shaped, heavily, by a doctrine of participation and ascent. Her book is organized accordingly: She lays out the logistics of the body of the book in her Introduction, which involves (i) ‘partcipation and Christianity’, (ii) ‘participation as a valid Reformed category’, (iii) ‘participation and Irenaeus’, and (iv) Calvin and Irenaeus (pp. 1-21). She then begins to develop what she highlights in her introduction in Chapter 1, entitled — Ladders of Ascent: A Brief History; the breakdown of the chapter is as follows: (i) ‘Greek itineraries: Plato’s Ladder and Plotinus’s golden circle’, (ii) ‘Christian journeys: Origen, Augustine, Aquinas’, and (iii) ‘Calvin’s paradigm of ascent’ (pp. 25-42). Chapter 2, Creation: The Ground and Grammar of Ascent, is framed by two sections: (i) Eternal mediation of the Word’ and (ii)’The mediator and the garden’ (pp. 53-74). Moving into Chapter 3, Christ: The Ascending One, Canlis unveils the descent and ascent of Christ with the theatre having been set by ‘Creation’ in the previous chapter; this chapter progresses thusly: (i) ‘The bidirectional itinerary of God’, (ii) ‘The descent of Jesus: His earthly humanity’, and (iii) The ascent of Jesus: His continuing humanity (pp. 89-112). Prior to discussing Irenaeus as Calvin’s foil and discussion partner in chapter 5, Julie moves skillfully into Chapter 4, The Spirit: The Eucharistic Ascent where she discusses the centrality and natural place this takes through Calvin’s schema of ‘union with Christ’ and ‘participation’ as a central component of his theology; this chapter discusses: (i) ‘Discipleship’, (ii) ‘Adoption’, and (iii) ‘The eucharistic ascent’ (pp. 123-159). She changes gears as we enter into Chapter 5, The Ascending Vision of Irenaeus; who she has already noted, back in chapter 1, serves as a helpful voice when engaging Calvin’s ‘ascension theology’; since Irenaeus not only represents an ealry corollary and cooridinate voice to Calvin’s in this area, but as we will see in chapter 6 — somewhat of a corrective (by way of complement) to Calvin, in regards to Calvin’s sometimes binary and almost “Platonic” like dualistic language (esp. when it comes to the eucharist, but also relative to his “theological anthropology”). Chapter 5 unfolds: (i) ‘The ascending economy of Adam’, (ii) ‘The ascending economy of Christ’, and (iii) ‘The ascending economy of the Spirit’ (pp. 173-210). Finally (in a good and crescendo kind of way) we come to Chapter 6, Reforming Ascent: Irenaeus, Calvin, and Christian Spirituality; this was well worth the wait, herein, Canlis orchestrates in symphonic tempo the voices of both Calvin and Irenaeus. She presents Calvin as the star of the show, highlighting all of the previous points she had developed throughout the body of the book; but as the co-star, she uses Irenaeus tenor like voice to bring harmony to Calvin’s theology of ascent in ways that are both historically tuned, but more constructively balanced in way that both Calvin and Irenaeus are allowed to shine with their respective strengths and weaknesses given their proper air time. The chapter breaksdown: (i) ‘Backward and forward with descent and ascent’, (ii) ‘Recapitulating ascent in Calvin’, (iii) ‘Participation and its challenges, and (iv) ‘Ascent, Calvin, and contemporary spirituality’ (pp. 229-245). She closes out the work with a dense Bibliography (pp. 253-272) and helpful Index of Names, Subjects, and Calvin’s Works (273-283) — respectively.

General Impressions

Julie Canlis’ book will rock your Calvin and Calvinistic world (if you have one). She offers a Calvin who is Pneumotologically shaped, and who really sounds less like the “Calvinism” that followed him; than ever before. The Calvin presented by Julie certainly fits the ‘Confessional Calvin’ that Charles Partee introduced us to in his (2008) ‘The Theology of John Calvin’ offering. She presses the ‘centrality’ that union with Christ & Participation with Christ played in shaping Calvin’s overall project; and she does this in a way that is not polemic, nor does it overtly engage the pictures of Calvin painted by folks like: Richard Muller, Carl Trueman, and David Steinmetz respectively; all of these scholars have sought to place Calvin in his “context” which does away with notions of Calvin that might portend a ‘centraldogma’. Interestingly, while Julie avoids this rather polemically charged venue of discourse; what she ends up doing is demonstrating that in fact Calvin does have a “core” (or center) that drives his overall theology, viz. his ‘theology of ascent’ (which is simply grounded in his “union with Christ” and “participation” with Christ theology).

Beyond all of this, what I found most refreshing was the koinonial-relational (Trinitarian) shape that Canlis develops relative to Calvin’s theology. She demonstrates, that while certain categories of Platonism (like ascent) were present (linguistically) in Calvin’s theology; that in the end, Calvin out-paces such things precisely because of his commitment to biblical and Trinitarian and Christian concepts that slight the metaphysics provided by Platonism. This is where Irenaeus becomes a very helpful interlocuter to Calvin; Canlis fruitfully notices and develops that one of the points of contact between both Calvin and Irenaeus is their overt and explicit Biblicism. This allows both men to escape the tendencies to slip back into the kind of Platonic metaphysicalism that folks like Osiander fell into in the attempt to talk about Christ’s divinity and humanity.

I would highly recommend this book, I give it 5 out of 5 stars; it will change your life (not an overstatement).

PS. This book is her PhD dissertation which she did under Alan Torrance at the University of St. Andrews (2005). While it is clearly a critical and academic work, the style is both pastoral and even devotional. I think any engaged Christian — layman, pastor, or scholar — will benefit immensely from this book!

Book Review: What The Hell: How Did We Get it So Wrong? Eternity, Grace, and the Message of Love

Jackson Baer

What The Hell: How Did We Get It So Wrong? Eternity, Grace, and the Message of Love

Denver, Colorado: Outskirts Press Inc., pp. xii.+139. Paper. $7.70

I want to thank Jackson Baer for promptly sending me this review copy from his own resources. The following review ends up being a bit critical of Jackson’s presentation, but I want him to know that I still respect him as a brother in Christ; even though I disagree with him. Ultimately, as you will read throughout the review, my disagreement with Baer—in regard to his book—is not as much with his conclusion (although I am not in total agreement with him, and I am not an Evangelical Universalist), but with his form and method of argument (or non-argument). I realize that Jackson Baer is not pretending to be a scholar, and that he obviously writes for the lay people amongst us; but even so, in the end, his method is more than I can bear (pardon the pun). You will have to read the rest of the review to find out what I am talking about. It is rather long (approx. 2700 words), but I wanted to be as thorough and fair to Jackson as I possibly could.

Jackson Baer is a former Youth and Teaching Pastor in an Evangelical church. He was released from his duties as a result of his belief that the doctrine of Hell does not include the Traditional teaching that it involves Eternal Conscious Torment. According to Baer, he wrote this book after spending four years of intense study to understand whether the traditional doctrine of hell was accurate, relative to the teaching of Scripture. Jackson Baer has an undergrad degree from a Bible College, is married with four young children. Baer is not an expert, a trained theologian, or biblical exegete; this reality should be brought to bear as the reader interacts with what Baer has put to print. The following is a review of Jackson Baer’s recently released (self published) book, What The Hell: How Did We Get It So Wrong? Eternity, Grace, and The Message of Love.

The book is made up of eleven short chapters; the total length of the volume is a hundred and thirty-nine pages. There are no footnotes, endnotes, or bibliographic material at the end of the book. The reader should understand that Baer’s book does not intend (it appears) to provide any global arguments, any engagement of recent or past scholarship (biblical or theological), any appeal to the original biblical languages, nor any sense of duty to accurately engage this hot issue in a way that reflects serious, objective, well thought out arguments. In other words, Baer’s book reflects more of a diary of his own personal struggle through the important issue of whether or not the traditional teaching of hell is viable. With that noted, let us enter into the body of Baer’s book.

Chapter 1 is titled, Stuck in Traffic: When One Hour Feels Like Forever. The title, straightforward as it is, identifies Baer’s primary purpose; he is seeking to suggest that time is relative, and thus the punishment of an eternal conscious torment in hell is not necessary in order for God to provide a just punishment for someone’s sins. Baer engages in anecdotal stories in order to “suggest” (versus argue) his point. At the end of this chapter Baer offers one more anecdote about how hell need not literally involve eternity in order to be hell. In the anecdote he is noting a plane trip he made from Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon; he gets stuck next to a chap who will not shut up. Baer uses this to describe how time and hell might relate to each other. We jump into the story as Baer is exiting the plane. He writes:

[I] didn’t want to bash this guy because he was obviously lonely. But as soon as he got off that plane all I could think was, “I’m free!” I felt like I had just finished a prison sentence and was tasting freedom for the first time in years. I was so grateful to be out of that seat. I said to myself as I walked into the airport, “That guy just convinced me that Hell is not eternal.” (p. 22)

Other than the humorous nature of this story; it serves to illustrate a very serious point that Baer is contending with. That is, that hell requires the belief that it involves an indefinite period of eternal conscious torment. Baer seems to want to suggest that hell can be temporal conscious torment, and still be hell. Chapter 2 is titled, You Speak Greek, I Read English. In this chapter Baer seeks to describe and argue how semantics, linguistics, and grammar work in the Bible. This is a key chapter for Baer, it is here where he attempts to relativize the biblical language of  words like eternal, fire, and more. Since Baer does not know Koine Greek (New Testament Greek), he relies on Young’s Literal Translation. The YLT translates the Greek word, found in Matthew 25:46, αíων, or aeon as ‘age-during’; instead of as eternal. Baer takes this translation as a repudiation of the normal translation of eternal; and thus he sees this as a way to understand this passage as denoting a quality instead of a quantity of existence. Or, that hell does not need to be understood as a literal place of eternal conscious torment; instead it could be a place of temporal conscious torment (so ‘age-during’ instead of eternal). I am giving Baer a charitable reading here (I think). Baer presses this as an opportunity to highlight how modern, contemporary translations are ultimately biased (and thus interpretations); and thus the serious Bible student (English speaking only) ought to refer to an “unbiased” translation like Young’s Literal Translation supposedly represents. Chapter 3 is entitled, Gehenna, the Grave, and the Invention of Hell. A very self-explanatory title; here Baer seeks to deconstruct the ‘traditional’ understanding of hell by explaining the way words like ‘Gehenna’, ‘the Grave,’ came to be interpreted as Hell. Baer argues that these words should be understood  in metaphoric ways, and  that it is a mis-translation (and thus interpretation) to translate these words with the signifier as ‘Hell’. His basic point is that this serves to mis-lead people into teaching that hell is taught in the Bible, when in fact the word hell is never used. He wants Bible students to refer back to the literal language (i.e. YLT), and thus disassociate ourselves from a doctrine that the New Testament in particular never teaches. Chapter 4, Good Dad v. Bad Dad, is a chapter that argues a fortiori of sorts; Baer argues that as a good earthly father, he will protect his children at all costs. Similarly he argues; that if this is true of earthly fathers, how much more must it be true of the Heavenly Father (p. 53-4). Chapter 5, entitled, What About The Old Testament, suggests that the God of the Old Testament is harsher than the God of the New Testament, and that the God of the Old Testament requires a works-righteousness salvation; while the New Testament is salvation by grace. Baer writes:

. . . The Old Testament is full of stories where people are sacrificing animals to atone for their sins. It’s a work based faith that required men and women to make a sacrifice in order to be forgiven from their sins. It also shows the darker side of God where He wipes out complete nations and seems harsher than most New Testament portrayals. (p. 69)

Baer continues along this line of thought; his method seems to be one where he is trying to provide a plausible account for how we should understand the apparent disparity between  the ‘harsher’ God of the Old Testament, with the God revealed in Christ in the New Testament. He seems to think the best way to understand the dealings of God in the Old Testament is to see them as metaphorical; he writes:

. . . Another thought is that many of the stories are simply metaphorical and didn’t actually happen. This belief might sound heretical to some Christians but it’s also a valid interpretation. (p. 69)

Baer then ties this into the way Jesus taught, parabolically. Baer seems to be suggesting that the ‘genocidal’ God of the Old Testament can be the God of grace in the New Testament; if we understand some of the ‘harsher’ language in the Old Testament as hyperbolic or parabolic. Thus the language should be understood in way that presents God as someone who is intensely adverse to sin, and not actually a mean, wrathful God—the kind of God who would condemn people to an eternal conscious and tormenting place known traditionally as, Hell. Chapter 6 is, All Merciful Now, Pent Up Rage Later? Here Baer asks his most pivotal question (according to him); it is: Why would God be forgiving here on Earth but extremely harsh and final in his punishment after death? (p. 77) In this chapter, Baer engages multiple passages of scripture—Ephesians 2:4-5; I Chronicles 16:34; Pslam 136; Titus 3:4-7; II Thessalonians 1:9; I Thessalonians 5:9-10; Matthew 18—to suggest (argue) that God’s mercy and grace far over-shadow God’s wrath and sense of justice towards sin. This chapter is Baer’s attempt to appeal to God’s nature, which as Baer would argue, means that God is not vindictive or wrathful forever; and Baer believes that the traditional doctrine of hell portends otherwise. Chapter 7 is labeled, When a Metaphor’s a Metaphor. Again, this is straightforward and self-explanatory. He tackles metaphor and its usage in scripture; he seeks to deconstruct the reality of a literal place called hell by ascribing it to the literary form of metaphor. Baer says it best when he writes of the dominical teaching of Jesus found in Mark 9; note, Baer:

[W]hen you are reading metaphorical language, you have to study it to see what the author was truly saying. In that same passage from the book of Mark, we see Jesus talking about being in danger of Gehenna (incorrectly translated as Hell) if you are not turning from those sins. This metaphorical language shows us that there is a punishment for sin and we are in danger of that punishment after we die. Did I miss the part about eternal torment and burning Hell for all of eternity? I didn’t miss it because it’s not there. Jesus didn’t say that, not even metaphorically, several times. That shows me that punishment for sin will not be pleasant but that there is also hope. God’s judgment is a serious thing to encounter. (p. 90)

Chapter 8 is titled, Aren’t We Forgetting Something? I Didn’t Ask To Be Born . . . . His basic suggestion in this chapter is that none of us chose to be born; so therefore, how would it be fair for God to then condemn us to hell? Baer intones that it is not fair and further, that this is incommensurate with God’s nature and demonstration of grace.  Baer writes, “Why would He not be merciful on judgment day, after a person’s time of punishment and correction? Why would he choose for someone to be born, live their life, and send them to Hell for eternity?” (p. 102) He follows this question, with many other skeptical questions about the fairness of God sending people to hell. You will have to read the book to find out what those are. Chapter 9, It’s Either Good News or It’s Not, continues to ask questions about God’s fairness; if in fact there is a literal place known as hell which lasts forever. His basic premise in this chapter is an “all or nothing” proposition; either the Gospel is good news or not. For Baer that means that everybody is included in the life everlasting offered by the Gospel; and not the eternal condemnation of hell (that would be bad news, and according to Baer negate the Good News). Baer writes, “If the Good News of Jesus Christ is only saving 10-20% of the world’s population, like most Christians estimate, then the news is good for a very small percentage of humanity and horrific for the majority of mankind. It’s either good news or it’s not.” (p. 110) The rest of the chapter follows this kind of “logic.” Chapter 10 is entitled, The Battle of Epic Proportions. In this chapter Baer engages the book of Revelation. Baer believes that “if” Revelation is an actual book that should be included in the Canon [he is ambiguous on his belief here, he appeals to the early Luther who questioned this book’s inclusion in the canon of Scripture (p. 124)—and then he questions the clarity of this book given its notoriously enigmatic history of interpretation (p. 129)], then it might teach that hell involves eternal conscious torment. But he elides this, again, by suggesting that the book of Revelation is a crux interpretum, and thus should not be appealed to in establishing doctrine. Baer seems to be appealing to the analogia scriptura (or fidei), where scripture should interpret scripture (the more clear interpreting the less clear); although he does not identify this, in explicit terms, as his approach at this point. Finally he closes this chapter by pointing the more motivated reader to PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), where he notes that, “PBS online has a great article on the history and facts about the book of Revelation.” (p. 129) Baer’s method in this chapter seemed to be to marginalize the clarity of Revelation, since if taken too literally it would seem to articulate that hell is eternal conscious torment. Chapter 11 is the final chapter of the book, and it is entitled, Restoring a 57’ Chevy. Baer uses this image [the 57’ Chevy] as a picture of what God does; he restores. Here, Baer, presents the Good News, the Gospel Message. Baer makes it clear that while he rejects the Tradition of the historic Christian Church on the doctrine of Hell; that at the same time, he still affirms the historic teaching of Christendom, that the only way to have a relationship with God is through faith in Jesus Christ! Baer is hopeful!


The primary strength of Jackson Baer’s book is that it has the potential to cause Christians to return to scripture once again, and test to see if what Baer is asserting is true. Baer is able to write in a way that the reader will feel his heart, passion, and burden to get scripture right. Throughout the book Baer continuously references scripture after scripture; seeking to prove his argument from the holy writ. This book illustrates what it looks like for a non-specialist to engage a timely topic of our day in a heartfelt way.


Jackson Baer, throughout his book, engages in fallacy after fallacy. This review has already run way too long, so I cannot illustrate this any further at this point (you will simply have to read the book to find out what I mean). He poisons the well, engages the genetic fallacy (over and again), sets up straw men, and probably the most prominent fallacy in Baer’s argument is ‘question begging’ (petitio principii). Baer overstates his case, many times, in order to undercut the traditional teaching of hell. In other words, he is so focused on deconstructing the doctrine of Hell, that he, in the process, tarnishes the integrity of the scriptures (even though he also wants to affirm that). Furthermore, Baer, undercuts the readers ability to trust modern biblical translations; again, simply so that he can make his point about hell (i.e. he believes that modern translations are more akin to interpretations, thus his appeal to a literal ‘translation’ “Young’s Literal Translation [which is actually a terrible literal translation]). There is also a prominent factual error that runs throughout Baer’s book; on pages 40, 124, and 127 he refers to the book of Revelation as apocryphal literature, instead of what it should be, apocalyptical literature—this error does not inspire confidence in the rest of Baer’s research. Finally, for this review, Baer runs rough-shod over any kind of scholarship. He ignores all of the history of interpretation, and only makes cryptic allusions to the history on this issue. This is a great oversight, and in my mind discredits the entire book (with everything else just noted).


As I wrote at the beginning of this review; this book would be more in the genre of diary, and personal reflection on how Jackson Baer has worked his way to his position on the traditional teaching on hell. If you are interested in understanding Jackson Baer’s road to a Christian Universalism, of sorts (he never self-identifies this way); then I could recommend this book to you on those merits. If you are seriously interested in reading a book that critically engages this issue, in a way that reflects careful thinking and argumentation; then I cannot recommend this book to you. For that I would recommend Gregory MacDonald’s (aka Robin Parry) The Evangelical Universalist. In fact, I would recommend that the author of the book under review here (if he has not), read MacDonald’s book. I think Baer would agree with what I have written here, after he does that.