The Character of God in Election. Miscellanies

At a personal existential level thought about election and reprobation is no small matter, or it shouldn’t be. It says much about whom God is; viz. the way God works in this area, or at least the way we conceive of God working in this area, indicates how it is that we conceive of God in the first place. This is why, at least for Karl Barth, to think a doctrine of God is not abstract from election/reprobation, but central to it. When we think of election it ought to conjure up the way we think of a God-world relation; i.e. election speaks to, again, the character of God, to the ways of God, and with whom he has to do. It is interesting, then, that this teaching often gets relegated to the bin of abstraction and speculation. True, the technical dogmatic words of ‘election’ and ‘reprobation’ are not found in Holy Scripture; but then again, neither is the word: ‘Trinity.’ So this is a matter of theological import, but not one that is not present in Scripture, rather it is “hidden” within the inner-logic of Scripture and allows Scripture to assert the things it does, one way or the other, about justification before God, so on and so forth.

As noted, for Barth, election became central to his doctrine of God and its development. It has a rather radical edge to it, particularly if we follow Bruce McCormack’s distillation and development of it. Indeed, McCormack’s development of Barth’s doctrine of election vis-à-vis doctrine of God has caused no small controversy. At first this ‘controversy’ was called the Companion Controversy, because McCormack’s chapter offering to The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth was the sort of watershed definitive point wherein McCormack drew out what he sees as the implications of Barth’s reformulation of a doctrine of election (juxtaposed with the classical position found in someone like John Calvin); it more recently has come to be called the ‘Barth Wars.’ George Hunsinger, Paul Molnar et al. have countered McCormack’s proposal, and attempted to keep Barth more ‘classical’ in his orientation when it comes to a doctrine of election. Hunsinger goes so far as to label the McCormack school as ‘the revisionists,’ whereas he calls his position ‘textual’ (i.e. implying that he is faithfully following the contours of Barth’s thought found concretely in the Church Dogmatics). This issue, for those involved in Barth studies, is well worn, and I would say almost passé; but only in a festering type of way. In other words, while this controversy has sort of warmed over, simply because of the passing of time and attention spans, doesn’t mean that anything has been resolved between the two sides. If you aren’t aware of all this, and even if you are, I thought I would share some insight into the history of this debate, as well as some of its material locutions; along with providing some perspective towards the background of McCormack’s own development and reception of Barth’s theology in this area. For help here I will enlist one of McCormack’s former PhD students, David Congdon. In David’s big book on Bultmann he offers the kind of detail I am hoping to provide, and so to his summary of these things we turn:

The debate surrounds McCormack’s now famous argument that Barth’s later theology, if it is to be consistent with his doctrine of election in KD 2.2, ought to make election logically prior to triunity: “The decision for the covenant of grace is the ground of God’s triunity and, therefore, of the eternal generation of the Son and of the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son. In other words, the works of God ad intra (the trinitarian processions) find their ground in the first of the works of God ad extra (viz., election).” See Bruce L. McCormack, “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 92–110, at 103. See also Bruce McCormack, “Karl Barth’s Historicized Christology: Just How ‘Chalcedonian’ Is It?” in Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 201–33, originally published in German in 2002, where he says that “it is precisely the primal decision of God in election which constitutes the event in which God differentiates himself into three modes of being. Election thus has a certain logical priority even over the triunity of God” (ibid., 218).

McCormack’s views on this matter find their origin in Jüngel’s  Gottes Sein ist im Werden. In this monograph Jüngel argues that God’s being is a historical event constituted by God’s free decision. “Decision,” Jüngel says, “does not belong to the being of God as something additional [Hinzutretendes] to this being, but rather, as event, God’s being is God’s own decision. ‘The fact that God’s being is event, the event of God’s act, must . . . mean that it is God’s own conscious, willed, and accomplished decision’ [KD 2.1:304/271]. What the doctrine of the Trinity already worked out is now confirmed by working out a concept of being appropriate to God: God’s being is constituted through historicity [Geschichtlichkeit].” Eberhard Jüngel,  Gottes Sein ist im Werden: Verantwortliche Rede vom Sein Gottes bei Karl Barth: Eine Paraphrase, 4th ed. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1986), 80. Later, in a reflection on the significance of Barth’s statement that “Jesus Christ is the electing God,” Jüngel states even more provocatively that “God has thus determined Godself in the second mode of being of the Trinity to be the electing God. ‘Jesus Christ is the electing God’ [KD 2.2:111/103]. In that here one of the three modes of being is determined to be the electing God, we have to understand God’s primal decision as an event in the being of God that differentiates the modes of God’s being” (ibid., 85).

McCormack’s argument in “Grace and Being” has initiated an intense debate within Barth studies regarding the relation between triunity and election, and specifically the nature of divine freedom. Many of these contributions are collected in Michael T. Dempsey, ed., Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). The most significant critique and response are George Hunsinger, “Election and the Trinity: Twenty-Five Theses on the Theology of Karl Barth,” Modern Theology 24, no. 2 (2008): 179–98, and Bruce L. McCormack, “Election and the Trinity: Theses in Response to George Hunsinger,” Scottish Journal of Theology 63, no. 2 (2010): 203–24. See also Bruce L. McCormack, “Trinity and Election: A Progress Report,” in Ontmoetingen: Tijdgenoten en getuigen: Studies aangeboden aan Gerrit Neven, ed. Akke van der Kooi, Volker Küster, and Rinse Reeling Brouwer (Kampen: Kok, 2009), 14–35; Bruce L. McCormack, “Let’s Speak Plainly: A Response to Paul Molnar,” Theology Today 67, no. 1 (2010): 57–65.[1]

There is much to consider here, but at this point I only want to underscore Hunsinger’s (and Molnar’s) primary critique of McCormack’s thesis. They both hone in on the apparent problem present in McCormack’s thesis: i.e. that he appears to make God’s being (his very inner life) contingent upon creation; upon God’s choice to not be God without his election of humanity for himself in Christ. The critique, ultimately, is that McCormack’s ‘Barthian’ presentation here suffers from a type of panentheism. Not only that, Hunsinger, in particular, goes after McCormack’s placement of election prior to God’s being as Triune; this, suggests Hunsinger, seems even logically (not just chronologically) implausible.

The above noted let me reign this in a bit. I started this post out with noting the idea that the doctrine of election is or should be a rather personal and existentialist reality. I suggested that this doctrine is inimical to one’s understanding of God and his relation to the world (particularly to creatures); that it is ultimately inimical to the way we think of God’s character. I then introduced us to an innovative way that election and theology proper were related in Barth’s theology; further detailing this move by way of introducing us to an internecine debate among Barth scholars involved in Barth studies. I want to now conclude this exercise by highlighting why I think wrestling through these issues remains seriously important; e.g. so engaging with why I think the personal-existential aspect of this doctrine is important for all those who by the Spirit say that Jesus is Lord.

Election is Christological, as such it is soteriological, as such it touches upon what it means to be alive (human) before God; it touches upon every waking aspect of who we are as creatures living before a Holy a God. It is important, therefore, to have a doctrine of election that has the ability to be concrete; that has the capaciousness to recognize how central God is to this reality; and what this doctrine, in particular, says about the character of God. Does God only love a select group of people based upon an absolute decree? Does God have to construct such a mechanism, as decrees, in order to ensure that his Pure Being status remains untouched by his creation; to ensure that he has no passions, that he has no moving parts in his inner life that might be unregulated by his simple being? Or does our doctrine of election start it’s thinking about a God-world relation in and from God’s personal self-givennness for us in the gift of the Son for the World; does our doctrine of election start from a person (and this is personal), or does it start from a set of propositions intended to ensure God’s status as the actual infinite?

I think God is personal; that his inner life is onto-relationally related in such a way that his inner being as God is given shape by his self-givenness (love) for the other in his own life. I think that this is the primal basis from whence we ought to think of a God-world relation; i.e. of election. We ought to think God from the way God decided we should think of him: from his Self Revelation and exegesis in the Son. If tradition gets in the way of that, or thwarts that, then that is bad tradition. Any tradition that nullifies the Word of God is bad tradition (cf. Mt. 15). In these instances the tradition needs to take a back-seat (subordinate) place relative to God’s Word.

What is primarily important to me about Barth’s reformulated doctrine of election—apart from the more technical issues in the ‘Barth Wars’—is how he focuses election (as everything else) in and around Jesus Christ in a very intense and concentrated manner. I.e. For Barth, election means: that Jesus Christ is both the electing God and elected human; that in his election to be human he elects all of humanity in a vicarious way, such that he takes on humanity’s “reprobate” status (cf. II Cor. 5.21). The wonderful exchange takes place (cf. II Cor. 8.9), and we, by God’s grace in Christ, receive his elect status for us as he takes our reprobate status with him into the grave and resurrects us with him in his elect status as the first fruits the first-born from the dead as the human for all of humanity. This says something about God’s character; it says that ‘God so loved the WORLD that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting/eternal life. It says that God loves humanity, and that he loves all of humanity with the same love that he loves his dearly beloved Son. This is meaningful to me.

And this now ends these rather fragmented, but hopefully at some level coherent, thoughts.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 173 n. 335.


Being More Evangelical than the Evangelicals; Being More Reformed than the Reformed: The Reformability of Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms

Let them watch out who proffer some Stoic and Platonic and dialectical Christianity. We have no need for curiosity after Jesus Christ, nor of academic investigation after the gospel.[1]

Far from advocating for non-critical reflection, the above quote from Barth signals the way he sees the doing of Christian theology; he sees it as a principial reality shaped by thinking from the inner-logic of the Gospel, and more, the pattern of Chalcedon’s Christology expressed in the grammar known as the homoousious. Barth sees the doing of theology, even by ecumenical church councils, as only having the capacity to offer proximate and relative stabs at articulating the immense reality revealed in the Gospel itself; the reality of God become human in Jesus Christ (Logos ensarkos). I don’t think critics of Barth’s really appreciate this about him; they don’t appreciate how Barth sees knowledge of God from an eschatological frame, and the theological endeavor, subsequently, as an always already project of the church pressing into and up against her being and reality in Jesus Christ. Bruce McCormack underscores this for us this way:

I say all of this to indicate that even the ecumenical creeds are only provisional statements. They are only relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes “orthodoxy.” Ultimately, orthodox teaching is that which conforms perfectly to the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture. But given that such perfection is not attainable in this world, it is understandable that Karl Barth should have regarded “Dogma” as an eschatological concept. The “dogmas” (i.e., the teachings formally adopted and promulgated by individual churches) are witnesses to the Dogma and stand in a relation of greater or lesser approximation to it. But they do not attain to it perfectly—hence, the inherent reformability of all “dogmas.” Orthodoxy is not therefore a static, fixed reality; it is a body of teachings which have arisen out of, and belong to, a history which is as yet incomplete and constantly in need of reevaluation.[2]

This doesn’t really seem all that controversial, or it shouldn’t. The classical Reformed have the concept of archetypal/ectypal as a distinction between knowledges of God; the former being God’s self-knowledge, and the latter being the knowledge the church can have of God in the accommodated ways it comes to her through God’s stooping down to us in Christ’s vicarious humanity. The idea of ectypal knowledge itself presupposes that the church can only have a proximate and thus not an absolute or fully settled knowledge of God; in other words, ultimate knowledge of God will only come in the eschaton and in beatific vision (and even then ultimate is relative to the God we are up against in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Triune and eternal reality).

So if this is the case, for my money, the way Barth approaches church tradition, church councils, so on and so forth is the prudent way. He recognizes that there is an inherent reformability to the church’s knowledge of God, and that the reality of the Gospel itself, as regulative, should be allowed to pollinate over and over again what we might have to come to consider as orthodox doctrine (i.e. Nicaea-Constantinople, Chalcedon). When put this way it doesn’t seem to me that Barth’s approach is really all that radical, at least not when we consider that we purportedly operate from the ‘scripture principle’ as authoritative and the norma normans for how we approach creeds, confessions, and church tradition in general. As Protestants we supposedly are committed to the idea that the reality (res) of Scripture is determinative towards our theologizing, and that we will not foreclose on that reality (because we can’t) by circumscribing the implicates of what Scripture discloses or doesn’t based upon a priori to certain Protestant creeds and confessions. In other words, as Protestants I thought we were committed to Holy Scripture, and the belief that its reality alone is regulative for the theological task.

It is this, I believe, that funds what Barth writes here. He is beginning to develop what he believes theology is, and how it might be ‘scientific’ within the delimited confines provided for by the reality and being of the church itself; i.e. Jesus Christ. And he is picking up where we have been tracing, in regard to the proximate, ectypal , and eschatological character of the Dogmatic and theological task:

Dogmatics as an enquiry presupposes that the true content of Christian talk about God must be known by men. Christian speech must be tested by its conformity to Christ. This conformity is never clear and unambiguous. To the finally and adequately given divine answer there corresponds a human question which can maintain its faithfulness only in unwearied and honest persistence. There corresponds even at the highest point of attainment the open: “Not as though I had already attained.” Dogmatics receives even the standard by which it measures in an act of human appropriation. Hence it has to be enquiry. It knows the light which is intrinsically perfect and reveals everything in a flash. Yet it knows it only in the prism of this act, which, however radically or existentially it may be understood, is still a human act, which in itself is no kind of surety for the correctness of the appropriation in question, which is by nature fallible and therefore stands in need of criticism, of correction, of critical amendment and repetition. For this reason the creaturely form which the revealing action of God assumes in dogmatics is never that of knowledge attained in a flash, which it would have to be to correspond to the divine gift, but a laborious movement from one partial human insight to another with the intention though with guarantee of advance.

The fact that it is in faith that the truth is presupposed to be the known measure of all things means that the truth is in no sense assumed to be to hand. The truth comes, i.e. in the faith in which we begin to know, and cease and begin again. The results of the earlier dogmatic work, and indeed our own results, are basically no more than signs of its coming. They are simply the results of human effort. As such they are a help to, but also the object of, fresh human effort. Dogmatics is possible only as theologia crucis, in the act of obedience which is certain in faith, but which for this very reason is humble, always being thrown back to the beginning and having to make a fresh start. It is not possible as an effortless triumph or an intermittent labour. It always takes place on the narrow way which leads from the enacted revelation to the promised revelation.

Here our way diverges from that of Roman Catholic dogmatics, and we must also enter a caveat against a certain tendency in the older Protestant tradition. Dogmatics is the science of dogma. Only in a subordinate sense, and strictly in conjunction with the primary, is it also the science of dogmas. The task of dogmatics, therefore, is not simply to combine, repeat and transcribe a number of truths of revelation which are already to hand, which have been expressed once and for all, and the wording and meaning of which are authentically defined.

This only too practicable view, by its direct equation of divine ascription and human appropriation in the dogmas, fails to recognise the divine-human character of the being of the Church. The being of the Church is Jesus Christ, and therefore an indissolubly divine-human person, the action of God towards man in distinction from which human appropriation is attested in the dogmas believed by the Church may be very worthy and respectable but can hardly be called infallible and therefore withdrawn from further enquiry whether this is how it should be. The concept of truths of revelation in the sense of Latin propositions given and sealed once for all with divine authority in both wording and meaning is theologically impossible if it is a fact that revelation is true in the free decision of God which was taken once for all in Jesus Christ, that it is thus strictly future for us, and that it must always become true in the Church in the intractable reality of faith. the freely acting God Himself and alone is the truth of revelation. Our dogmatic labours can and should be guided by results which are venerable because they are attained in the common knowledge of the Church at a specific time. Such results may be seen in the dogmas enshrined in the creeds. But at no point should these replace our dogmatic labours in virtue of their authority. Nor can it ever be the real concern of dogmatics merely to assemble, repeat and define the teaching of the Bible.

Exegetical theology investigates biblical teaching as the basis of our talk about God. Dogmatics, too, must constantly keep it in view. But only in God and not for us is the true basis of Christian utterance identical with its true content. Hence dogmatics as such does not ask what the apostles and prophets said but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets. This task is not taken from us because it is first necessary that we should know the biblical basis.

As the Church accepts from Scripture, and with divine authority from Scripture alone, the attestation of its own being as the measure of its utterance, it finds itself challenged to know itself, and therefore even and precisely in face of this foundation of all Christian utterance to ask, with all the seriousness of one who does not yet know, what Christian utterance can and should say to-day.[3]

This is laudable; brilliant even. This seems like it should be common practice and knowledge among Protestant Christians in the main; particularly those of the so called Reformed stripe. And many, even classically Reformed, would claim that they allow Holy Writ to serve as regulative and authoritative for the dogmatic and theological endeavors, but in function these folks actually circumscribe Scripture’s reality by their own Protestant Reformed creeds confessions; with the caveat that such confessions represent the most faithful exegesis and explication of Holy Scripture on the market today. Once this step is made, even though they have a logical-out (i.e. they can assert that all else is subordinate to Scripture), Scripture, and thus Scripture’s reality (i.e. Jesus Christ) is no longer free to be determinative nor regulative for the theological task; instead ‘the most faithful explications of Scripture’ have been given this authority (i.e. Westminster Confession of Faith et al.).

When Barth is delineating how he sees Church Dogma as a kind of science of the Church and her reality (Jesus Christ), he notes this:

In not just resigning the title to others, with all due respect to the classical tradition it makes a necessary protest against a general concept of science which is admittedly pagan. It cannot do any harm even to the most stalwart representatives of this concept, or indeed to the whole university, to be reminded by the presence of the theologian among them that the quasi-religious certainty of their interpretation of the term is not in fact undisputed, that the tradition which commences with the name of Aristotle is only one among others, and that the Christian Church certainly does not number Aristotle among its ancestors.[4]

Again, in principle many contemporary evangelical and Reformed theologians might amen this (if they didn’t think it came from Barth), but then they would go right back to feeding off of Aristotle’s progeny as it has been dumped into the Christian tradition through Thomas, and reified further in the neo-Thomists of the scholastic Reformed tradition (the tradition which most evangelical and Reformed theologians are currently resourcing for the evangelical church in North America and elsewhere).


All that I have shared from Barth in this post, I think, represents what it means to operate in the spirit of the Reformed and evangelical Christian faith. See, I am still an evangelical Christian, I’m not a progressive, a liberal, or outside the bounds of what an evangelical and even Reformed Christian actually is. As a born-and-bred evangelical Christian when I look at the various alternatives, in regard to resourcing and retrieving for the Christian church in the 21st century, I don’t see repristinating the ‘old paths’ as the best way, nor in the evangelical mode of what it indeed means to be an evangelical Christian (in the historic sense of that word). Supposedly evangelicals and the Reformed are committed to the Scripture Principle, and Barth offers a way for Christian Disciples to honor and work from that principle and its reality concentrated in Jesus Christ. He provides the freedom and latitude to correct and criticize what we are all thankful for; i.e. ecumenical creeds and confessions (particularly the ones having to do with theology proper and Christology). He offers a way to see the Dogmatic task as a determination made by the Church’s reality, by Scripture’s reality: Jesus Christ. It’s unfortunate that this way is not the way, by and large, that the Reformed and evangelicals have chosen to go. Instead they have chosen to relegate the regulation of Church dogma to creeds and confessions that themselves are segregated to the point of being untouchable and uncorrectable; since, ostensibly, they are the most faithful elaboration of Holy Scripture’s meaning.


[1] Karl Barth, CD I/1, 11.

[2] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 16.

[3] Barth, CD I/1, 12-15.

[4] Ibid., 9.

Christology as a Case Study: The Relationship Between Church Tradition and the Bible as Fonts of Authority and Divine Knowledge

The tension present between the role of church tradition and the bible, and how the two mutually implicate one or the other (or don’t) is not going away any time soon. There are those who want to believe that they can be strict, even slavish wooden bible literalists; then there are others who believe that the tradition of the church functions magisterially in the biblical interpretive process; and yet others who want to attempt a kind of dialectic between the two (I’d say the best of the Reformed sola Scriptura approach resides here). As a Reformed Christian, and evangelical, I hold to the ‘scripture principle’ that scripture itself is authoritative and the norming norm over and against all else; even tradition. Of course I’m not naïve enough to think that the scripture principle itself is not its own ‘tradition,’ but it is so heuristically. Here is how Oliver Crisp breaks down the various tiers of principles relative to how scripture, church tradition, regional creeds, and theological opinion all ought to relate one with the other (from a Reformed perspective):

  1. Scripture is the norma normans, the principium theologiae. It is the final arbiter of matters theological for Christians as the particular place in which God reveals himself to his people. This is the first-order authority in all matters of Christian doctrine.
  2. Catholic creeds, as defined by and ecumenical council of the Church, constitute a first tier of norma normata, which have second-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. Such norms derive their authority from Scripture to which they bear witness.
  3. Confessional and conciliar statements of particular ecclesial bodies are a second tier of norma normata, which have third-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. They also derive their authority from Scripture to the extent that they faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture.
  4. The particular doctrines espoused by theologians including those individuals accorded the title Doctor of the Church which are not reiterations of matters that are de fide, or entailed by something de fide, constitute theologoumena, or theological opinions, which are not binding upon the Church, but which may be offered up for legitimate discussion within the Church.[1]

I think this is a helpful overview (I’ve shared it before, in fact, in years past). But I also wanted to share, at some length, a quote from Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink that fleshes this out even further. They are in the midst of discussing Christology and how the tradition of the church played the role that it did in providing the grammar that the church has held as the orthodox grammar towards speaking about the relationship of God and humanity/humanity and God in the singular person of Jesus Christ. Necessarily, in the midst of their discussion they are broaching the very issue I am highlighting in this post—i.e. how we ought to think about the relationship between church tradition and biblical teaching. They write (in extenso):

In a sense, and depending on where we currently find ourselves, the christological decisions of the fourth and fifth century are stations that we might have passed. We accept them gratefully while appropriating them critically. We need to pay attention to the underlying issues in the christological debate, to see where positions had to be guarded and why certain concepts that were introduced were needed. The conclusion of the Council of Nicaea that Jesus is of one essence (homo-ousios) with the Father, for instance, is much easier to understand when we realize that it was prompted by the desire to safeguard the thoroughly biblical idea that we cannot ensure our own salvation. God himself must become involved in the world—if we as human beings—are to be rescued from ruin, and for that reason Jesus must share the same “being,” or essence, with God. We simply are not like the fictional Baron Munchausen who, according to a well-known story, was able to pull himself out of the mud by his own hair. In brief, we do not accept the formulas because they happen to be part of the tradition, but because we discover genuine biblical motives behind these statements and in what they want to signal. One could say that the christological decisions (Niceno-Constantinopolitan and Chalcedon) are the directives of a former generation for how to handle the gospel story, the message of the God of Israel, and the Father of Jesus Christ.

There also is an important theological reason to exercise this “hermeneutic of trust” with respect to the tradition’s unifying message of the person of Jesus. Christ himself promised his disciples that the Spirit would lead them into all truth (John 16:13). It would be incredibly callous to suggest that the tradition is completely in the dark. At the same time, this promise gives no guarantee against the possibility of some obscuring or ideological manipulation of the gospel, whether presented in very high church or in popular forms. Therefore, we must always be critical in our dealings with the tradition; we must be selective on the basis of what the apostles and prophets have given us in the Bible.

When faced with the question of whether the tradition is a legitimate source for our Christology, we therefore give this dual answer. On the one hand, we gratefully accept the christological decisions of the church that came from the ecumenical councils. We thus abide by the course and the outcome of the christological debate. We move on, even though we realize that some alternatives might have been condemned at these councils owing to church politics and that the conclusions might well have turned out differently or have ended in the (often rather broad) margins of the church. But we trust that this is a case of hominum confusione Dei providentia (God’s providence [may be executed in the midst of] human confusion). On the other hand, our task is always to return to the biblical texts and, within their range of possibilities, take a critical look at the decisions and the terminology the councils used. Going back to the Bible this way is needed for several reasons. Something clearly present in the texts may have been lost in the process of debate; going back to the texts thus may represent an enrichment. But we also face a problem of comprehension when ancient languages become a stumbling block in a changed context, and we may need to reinterpret and reword the context of the dogma because of those changes. The struggles recent generations of believers and theologians have had with certain concepts of classic Christology represent a real problem we may not simply brush away.[2]

I find these to be wise words, and represent a good way for attempting to negotiate this kind of tenuous situation between tradition and the Bible. It touches, of course, on issues of authority in the church and how that relates to the biblical and theological interpretive processes itself.

Someone I have found fruitful towards engaging in this kind of negotiation between taking the trad seriously, and at the same time allowing the reality of Holy Scripture to be determinative, is Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Bruce McCormack offers these good words on Barth in this regard:

I say all of this to indicate that even the ecumenical creeds are only provisional statements. They are only relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes “orthodoxy.” Ultimately, orthodox teaching is that which conforms perfectly to the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture. But given that such perfection is not attainable in this world, it is understandable that Karl Barth should have regarded “Dogma” as an eschatological concept. The “dogmas” (i.e., the teachings formally adopted and promulgated by individual churches) are witnesses to the Dogma and stand in a relation of greater or lesser approximation to it. But they do not attain to it perfectly—hence, the inherent reformability of all “dogmas.” Orthodoxy is not therefore a static, fixed reality; it is a body of teachings which have arisen out of, and belong to, a history which is as yet incomplete and constantly in need of reevaluation.[3]

This offers a different slant on all that we have been discussing thusly. Barth’s thinking (as distilled by McCormack) on the eschatological character of church ‘dogma’ is an important caveat in all of this. It points up the provisional and proximate nature that church dogma, as that is related to the biblical teaching, entails.

Much more could be said, but let me simply close by saying: as Christians our ultimate authority is the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. Insofar as Holy Scripture is “attached” to the living Word as the ordained Holy ground upon which God has chosen to most definitively bear witness to himself in Jesus Christ, then we as Christians do well to live under this reality; the reality that Jesus is Lord, and his written Word, for our current purposes as Christians, serves as the space wherein Christians might come to a fuller knowledge of God and their relationship to him as he first has related to us. Within this matrix of fellowship, though, we ought to remember the role that tradition plays in this as the inevitable interpretive reality that is always already tied into what it means to be humans before God; and in this thrust, then, we ought to be appreciative and attentive to what God has been working into his church for the millennia; and we ought to appreciate that he continues to speak into his church.


[1] Oliver Crisp, god incarnate, (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 17.

[2] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 397-98.

[3] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 16.

What Does the Practical Syllogism [assurance of salvation] Have to Do With Modern Theology’s Turn-to-the-Subject?

For people concerned about such things—I haven’t come across anyone who seems to be for a long time now, which normally I would think is a good thing, but I’m afraid that the reason despairwhy is not for a good reason—the doctrine of assurance of salvation and certainty about one’s eternal destiny has a long pedigree in the history of the church’s ideas. If you are someone who has struggled with this, and would like to get a handle on where it came from in the history of ideas, then this post is for you (there’s also a twist to this post as the title suggests).

It all started, it can be surmised, back in the days of late medieval and early reformational theology; an apparatus known as the practical syllogism came to the fore, and is what Protestant’s appealed to in an attempt to grasp a sense of certitude about whether or not they were one of the elect of God. It starts early on in the Protestant genesis, and maturates in unhealthy ways as we get into Puritan England, particularly in the theology of William Perkins. Stephen Strehle provides a type of genealogy for the development of the practical syllogism.

Deducing Salvation

The practical syllogism began to be sure much like the doctrine of eternal security, looking to ascertain one’s election a posteriori from its “signs” or “marks.” However, this time instead of focusing upon the promises of God as revealed in Christ, the concentration shifted toward the faith and works of those who would obtain and partake of those promises. The faith and works of one’s salvation experience became signs through which a true believer could discern his relationship to Christ’s promises and his election before the Father. It was all a simple deduction: “Every one that believes is the child of God: But I doe beleeve: Therefore I am the child of God.” This practical syllogism became a significant feature in most accounts of the Reformed orthodox and unfortunately turned the faith of the church away from Christ and toward an inspection of oneself and the fruits of true salvation.

The precise history of the doctrine is not so clear, although we do find certain theologians of note who were influenced in its publication and help us to trace its development. Calvin as we have noted is not a party to this as his focus remains centered upon Christ and his promises throughout his works. While he might at certain points speak of works as providing some assistance to a troubled conscience, they are considered only secondary means of consolation, and generally when he looks at himself Calvin finds nothing but despondency and condemnation. Theodore de Beza, who succeeded Calvin at Geneva, did tend, however, to reverse this order and must be considered prominent in the initial dissemination of the doctrine. He speaks of the practical syllogism a few times in his works, maintaining that it is the “first step” by which we progress toward the “first cause” of our salvation. While it is not a major emphasis of his, just the mere mention of it in his works is all that was needed. His very stature as the only theological professor at Geneva from 1564-1600 and practically all Reformed Europe for that matter would insure its place in the Reformed tradition, along with the rest of his Aristotelian (non-Christocentric) program, as we shall see later. As far as other important figures, Jerome Zanchi, a theologian from Strasbourg and disciple of Calvin, must also be accorded his place in the ascent and prevalence of the doctrine, perhaps providing an even earlier inspiration from Beza. He supplies in his works a syllogistic argument that displays the same basic structure of Beza’s and orthodoxy’s formulation but without supplying the specific name (indicating an early date). He then exhorts the believer to look within, not without, to find Christ working. Zanchi will prove to exert a major influence not only in Europe but especially in England among the Puritans where the doctrine will receive its most protracted and painstaking treatment. The Calvinists will hereafter speak of faith and certitude as involving a “serious exploration of oneself,” a “reflexive act” in which “faith in one self is felt,” and an inner knowledge of what one “feels and believes.” All of this resulted, of course, as they forsook the Christocentric orientation of Calvin for Aristotle, as well as the sacramental basis of personal assurance in Luther, which we had emphasized earlier. The quest for certitude had now devolved into an introspective life from which only depravity and uncertainty could be found, as well as a calculus, deduced from a more general promise and the Christ who made it, both of which seemed strangely at a distance. The Puritans, as we said, serve as the most notable example of this turn and should be accorded special mention in the study of assurance. In contrast to the perfunctory manner in which many of the Calvinists treated the doctrine, often reserving a mere page or two in otherwise prodigious tomes, the Puritans produced numerous and voluminous treatises upon the doctrine, considering it to be the most pressing of all religious issues.[1]

Anyone familiar with Richard Muller’s writings will immediately recognize the critique he would make against Strehle’s development; particularly the idea that Beza, contra Calvin, took Reformed theology into Aristotelian and philosophical modes of thought. I myself am critical of Strehle’s idea that Calvin was purely Christocentric when it comes to this issue; in fact in my forthcoming chapter in our EC2 book, I argue, along with Barth and others, that Calvin actually contributed to a non-Christocentric trajectory when dealing with this particular issue of assurance of salvation.

But none of the above withstanding, in a general way Strehle provides a faithful accounting, in my view, for how the practical syllogism developed and made its way into Puritan theology. What I would like to suggest, though, is that this development, this turn to the self, it could be argued at an intellectual-heritage level, contributed to the modern turn to the subject that is often, at least theologically, attributed to the work of someone like Friedrich Schleiermacher. Kelly Kapic sketches Schleiermacher, and his interlocutors this way:

The genius of Schleiermacher’s system is that he takes his anthropological emphases and pulls his entire theology through this grid. Arguably this creates an anthropocentric theology, since he consciously grounds his methods in human experience. This understandably provoked many questions. For example, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), a one-time student of Schleiermacher, later turned this perspective on its head, concluding that there really is no theology at all, since it is all ultimately reducible to anthropology. God is nothing more than the projection of human desires and feelings, but not a reality in itself. Nodding in Schleiermacher’s direction, Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer later commented that “theological anthropocentrism is always a more serious danger than secular anthropocentrism, since we, from the very meaning of theology, might expect that it would not misunderstand man as centrum.” Karl Barth, especially in his younger years, also chastened Schleiermacher with his famous quip: “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice,” since doing so means you will misunderstand both God and man. Finally, Paul Tillich worried that Schleiermacher’s language and emphasis on “feeling,” which he admits was commonly misunderstood, nevertheless contributed to the exodus of men from German churches.  Although this appears to me an unfair charge to level against Schleiermacher, it is fair to say that his proposal to orient all religion, and consequently the truth of theology, to Gefühl does widen the canvas on which theological anthropology will be painted by including more than rationality and will as the core of being human.[2]

It might seem like a stretch to suggest that the type of theology produced by someone like Schleiermacher, or moderns in general, can be attributed by antecedent to what we see developed in the theologies that produced something like the practical syllogism, but I don’t think it is too big of a stretch. I see at least a couple of links: 1) there is an informing anthropology where anthropology starts from a philosophical starting point rather than a Christian Dogmatic one. In other words, the humanity of Jesus Christ, for Beza and Scheiermacher alike is not the ground for what it means to be a human at a first-order level, as such within this abstraction, even from the get go, there is of necessity a turn to the human subject as its own self-defining terminus; i.e. there is not external ground by which humanity can be defined in this frame, instead it is humanity as absolute (obviously at a second order after-this-fact level, Beza, Schleiermacher, et al. then attempt to bring Christ’s humanity into the discussion). 2) There is a methodological focus on a posteriori discovery in regard to knowing God and knowing self before God in practical syllogism theology as well as turn to the subject theology (pre-modern and modern respectively). This in and of itself is not problematic, per se, but it is problematic when informed antecedently by an anthropology that is, at a first order level, detached from Jesus Christ’s humanity as definitive. Again, if humans start with a general sense of humanity devoid of the humanity of Christ as its primal ground, and attempt to know God and place themselves before God from that starting point there are devastating consequences. One of the primary consequences is that all theologizing from that point on, coram Deo, must start epistemologically and ontologically, from below; i.e. from my humanity, from your humanity. At the end of all of  this we end up with a rationalizing affect that colors the way we attempt to negotiate our standing and understanding with and before God.

So What?

Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, both modern theologians,  sought to invert and flip turn-to-the-subject theology on its head by thinking from truly Christian Dogmatic taxis (or ‘order’). Torrance made a special point of emphasizing how an order-of-being must come before and order-of-knowing; in other words, the idea that God’s being precedes our being, and that all conditions for knowing God and thus self (cf. Calvin) must start within this frame and order of things. I.e. There is no general or abstract sense of humanity, if we are going to have genuine knowledge of God, ourselves, and the world, then we must start with the concrete humanity of Jesus Christ. Barth, in his own ways, makes these same points, particularly by flipping Immanuel Kant on his head, and as a consequence flipping Schleiermacher on his.

I would contend that Western society, in general, still is living out what this turn-to-the-subject has meant for society at large. In fact, in the 21st century we see this type of turn in hyper-form; we might want to call it normative relativism. Ideas do have consequences, as such I think getting an idea of where they come from can help us engage those ideas critically; and when needed we are in a better position to repudiate and/or reify ideas that might ultimately be deleterious to our souls.

What I have suggested in this post remains quite general, and some would say reductionistic; but I think there is something to what I’m getting at. Since this is a blog post, and a long one, it will have to simply remain at the level of suggestion.

[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 37-41.

[2] Kelly M. Kapic, “Anthropology,” in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, eds., Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2012), 192 Scribd version.

Two Controversial (for some) Quotes on Barth’s Theology of Eternity, History, Being, and Impassibility

Here are two quotes from Bruce McCormack on Barth’s theology of eternity, history, and being; and then how that all impacts concepts like impassibility and immutability. These are not uncontroversial. The first quote would be controversial among Barth scholars who take a more “textual” reading of Barth (like Hunsinger and Molnar), while the latter quote would be controversial pencilbarthamong trad Protestant theologians who affirm a classical understanding of immutability and impassibility as it comes to a theology proper. What do you think?

For Barth, Jesus Christ is his history. He is the history set in motion by an eternal act of self-determination; hence, the history that he is finds its root in election. This is what he is “essentially.” Jesus Christ is what he is in his eternal act of self-determination and in its outworking in time. The implications for a putative divine timelessness should be clear: Already in Church Dogmatics, II/1Barth had treated “eternity” as something that is defined by God’s being. The concept is used illegitimately where it is filled with content drawn from some other quarter and then applied to God. Moreover, Barth had already claimed that eternity is that which founds time, that which provides time with its basis. And it would be hard to see how it could be anything else. If God’s eternal act of self-determination is a determination for existence as a human being in time, then it is the eternal decision itself which founds time. And if God’s being is, on the basis of this decision, a being-for-time, then clearly God’s being cannot be timeless. We would do better to understand the decision in eternity and its outworking in time to be a single activity, one which originates in eternity and is completed in time. But this then also means that time is not alien to the innermost being of God.[1]

And this:

The critique of impassiblity requires a further step. Who, we might well ask, is the Subject who suffers in Jesus of Nazareth? We have just seen how a commitment to impassibility [prior discussion to these two quotes] led to an understanding of the Logos as an absolute metaphyscial Subject, with the consequence that it became necessary to treat the human nature as a Subject in its own right, capable of a suffering which had no ontological implications for the Logos. That such a conception tilts in the direction of Nestorianism is clear. What Barth has done, however, is to insist that a single-Subject Christology such as Chalcedon’s cannot make this move. There can be only one Subject of the human sufferings of Jesus, and this Subject is the Logos. That the Logos suffers humanly goes without saying. Suffering is made possible only through the assumptio carnisBut it is the Logos who suffers, for there is no other Subject. Even more important where the concept of impassiblity is concerned, Barth has also closed the gap between the Logos and his divine nature. If the Logos is the Subject of the human sufferings of Jesus, then suffering is an event which takes place within the divine lifewhich also means that the divine “nature” cannot be rightly defined in abstraction from this event. The divine nature can rightly be defined only by this event. The net consequence of this move is that Barth is able to advance an understanding of divine immutability which is no longer controlled by the further thought of impassiblityIf becoming human, suffering and dying, and so forth, are the content of the eternal decision in which God gives himself his being, then no change is introduced into the being of God when this becoming and so forth take place in time. And if God is immutably determined for suffering, then the concept of immutability has been cut loose from impassibility.[2]


[1] Bruce L. McCormack, ed.,Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives, 222.

[2] Ibid., 222-23 [brackets mine].

God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility in Hypostatic Union

The following is Karl Barth’s articulation on a Christ centered understanding of human freedom and God’s sovereignty. Barth focuses on Jesus as the archetypical man, which then becomes the basis for how we should understand our relationship to the Father — and the subsequent freedom “for” God that humanity has in Christ. We will hear from Barth and Bruce McCormack in the following quote:

seen in the light of God’s self giving and the freedom of Jesus’ obedience unto death, Barth concludes that [this was McCormack’s part]:

the perfection of God’s giving of himself to man in the person of Jesus Christ consists in the fact that far from merely playing with man, far from merely moving or using him, far from dealing with him as an object, this self giving sets man up as a subject, awakens him to genuine individuality and autonomy, frees him, makes him a king, so that in his rule the kingly rule of God himself attains form and revelation. How can there be any possible rivalry here, let alone usurpation? How can there be any conflict between theonomy and autonomy? How can God be jealous or man self assertive? (CD I I/2, p. 179)

. . . Genuine freedom as it is realized in Jesus is not a freedom from God but a freedom for God (and, with that, a freedom for other human beings). ‘ To the creature God determined, therefore, to give an individuality an autonomy, not that these gifts should be possessed outside Him, let alone against Him, but for him and within his kingdom; not in rivalry with his sovereignty but for its confirming and glorifying’ (CD I I/2, p. 178).

I think it is important to ground everything in Christ, even this apparent and historical conundrum; I appreciate Barth’s framing of this issue here, and I really appreciate T. F. Torrance even more as he fleshes this out through emphasizing the vicarious nature of Christ’s Spirit anointed work — and further, how he grounds “our freedom and choice for God” in Christ’s medatiorship as the God-Man (cf. I Tim. 2:5-6). Too often in Christian theology we have a dualistic competition between God and Man; instead we should see this in unitary harmony as God reconciles man in Christ through the Incarnation and hypostatic union.

*an old post from another blog

Reformulating the Reformed Faith after Karl Barth: An evangelical Calvinist Response

Bruce McCormack offers some very instructive words when it comes to defining Orthodoxy, and how that functions as a definer for Barth’s mode of theologizing as a Reformed Protestant Christian who inhabited the Modern period. In this post we will work through a section of McCormack’s book Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, and conclude with an evangelical Calvinist response to what we have engaged with. Here is McCormack’s development of how he thinks Barth was an “orthodox” theologian:

orthodox-and-modernBut what of my other term—“orthodox”? In what sense do I mean to employ this term in relation to Barth’s theology? “Orthodoxy” means “right teaching” or “right doctrine.” But what and who determines what is “right teaching”? The what-question is more easily answered. For any Protestant theologian worth his or her salt, the material norm of what can and must be said within the bounds of Christian dogmatics can be only Holy Scripture. But Scripture must be interpreted—and it is at this point that the who-question becomes pressing. Protestantism in its originating form did not really differ from Catholicism in its insistence that the proper “subject” of theology is finally a church and individuals only as servants of the Word in and for a church—“doctors of the church,” in other words. It was for this reason that Calvin could insist that confessions of a church ought not to be written by an individual but by a company of learned pastors. In cases of doctrinal conflict, he wrote, “we indeed willingly concede, if any discussion arises over doctrine, that the best and surest remedy is for a synod of true bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined. Such a definition, upon which the pastors of the church in common, invoking Christ’s Spirit, agree, will have much more weight than if each one, having conceived it separately at home, should teach it to the people, or if a few private individuals should compose it. Then, when the bishops are assembled, they can more conveniently deliberate in common what they ought to teach and in what form, lest diversity breed offense.” But he could also say, “Whenever the decree of any council is brought forward, I should like men first of all diligently to ponder at what time it was held, on what issue, and with what intention, what sort of men were present; then to examine by the standard of Scripture what it dealt with—and to do this in such a way that the definition of the council may have its weight and be like a provisional judgment, yet not hinder the examination I have mentioned.” Both traditional Protestantism and traditional Catholicism held that a church must finally decide questions of controversy. For both, the ancient councils and their creeds and definitions have a high degree of authority as interpretations of Holy Scripture. But for the older Protestants, the ancient councils were not to be regarded as irreformable—and that marked a major difference from the Catholic view. Protestants also believed that the confessions of their own churches constituted a relatively binding, authoritative interpretation of and/ or addition to the ancient councils and, as a consequence, had to be taken with as much seriousness as the pronouncements of the ecumenical councils.[1]

Barth followed, just as all Reformed theologians did, and do, the idea that God and Scripture are the principia of the Reformed Christian faith. As such, his final canon for establishing ‘right teaching’ in a norming way was to test all things and hold fast to the regulative reality of what Scripture attests to, Jesus Christ. Following this principle, the Protestant principle of Scripture, as McCormack notes, Barth remained open to the possibility that even the ecumenical councils themselves could be ‘reformed’ (i.e. not done away with) as the church of Jesus Christ pressed deeper and deeper into the inner-reality of Scripture; in other words, because of the provisional nature of theological knowledge of God (dare I say ectypal knowledge), for Barth even the catholic teaching always has room for further precision and clarification as we as the church move closer to the one faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. McCormack expands further on how the provisional nature of church knowledge of God was just that, particularly because, as Barth maintained, since we are up against a perfect God, our theological pronouncements and Dogma are an eschatological concept. McCormack writes:

I say all of this to indicate that even the ecumenical creeds are only provisional statements. They are only relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes “orthodoxy.” Ultimately, orthodox teaching is that which conforms perfectly to the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture. But given that such perfection is not attainable in this world, it is understandable that Karl Barth should have regarded “Dogma” as an eschatological concept. The “dogmas” (i.e., the teachings formally adopted and promulgated by individual churches) are witnesses to the Dogma and stand in a relation of greater or lesser approximation to it. But they do not attain to it perfectly—hence, the inherent reformability of all “dogmas.” Orthodoxy is not therefore a static, fixed reality; it is a body of teachings which have arisen out of, and belong to, a history which is as yet incomplete and constantly in need of reevaluation.[2]

And so Barth has this openness in his theological mode, but an openness toward God in Christ; which means a constant sensitivity to what the teachers and doctors of the ecumenical church concluded as they too wrestled with and produced theological grammar that reposed upon the reality disclosed in Holy Scripture: Jesus Christ. Barth held to the traditional teachings of the catholic church, but of course in light of what we have been developing (through McCormack), Barth reformulated all of these teachings in light of the type of Christ concentrated focus he had in his theological posture. McCormack writes further:

All of this is relevant to an evaluation of Karl Barth’s “orthodoxy.” On the face of it, it would seem to be very hard to deny to anyone who affirms, as Barth does, the doctrine of the Trinity, a two-natures Christology, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the visible return of Christ, the immutability of God, and so on, the honorific of “orthodox.” And yet the issue is not quite so simple. The truth is that Barth has not simply taken over unchanged any doctrinal formulation of the ancient or the Reformation churches. He has reconstructed the whole of “orthodox” teaching from the ground up. It is not the case that he simply tinkered with the machinery. What he did was to ask, in the case of each piece of authoritative teaching, exactly what Calvin would have him ask: What was at issue? What was the intention? How was it formulated? Did the formulation do justice to the theological subject matter to which it sought to bear witness? And most important, perhaps, is it necessary to affirm the philosophical commitments which aided the ancients and the Reformers in their efforts to articulate the theological subject matters under consideration? Or may one draw upon more modern philosophies in one’s efforts to explain the creeds and confessions today?[3]

Barth never lost the curiosity that John Webster maintained was and is a hallmark of a genuinely Christian imagination as it attempts to engage with God ever afresh and anew; even from within what George Hunsinger identifies as the ‘Chalcedonian pattern’ in Barth’s theology.[4] Webster writes, “Theological curiosity is checked and theological studiousness promoted when the intellects of saintly persons are directed to the proper object of theology and to the proper ends of contemplation and edification.”[5] It is this lively curiosity that marked Barth’s theological engagement as his intellect and passions were ‘directed to the proper object of theology’ who is Jesus Christ. It was this preoccupation that drove Barth to re-work even the ecumenical pronouncements of the church ‘from the ground up’; Barth after-all was a Modern, who just also happened to be Orthodox in a very ‘curious’ way. McCormack offers his opinion on how these two realties melded together in Barth’s theology as both Orthodox&Modern:

My own view is this: what Barth was doing, in the end, was seeking to understand what it means to be orthodox under the conditions of modernity. This is the explanation, I think, for the freedom he exhibited over against the decrees of the ecumenical councils and the confessions of his own Reformed tradition. He took the creeds and the confessions seriously—how could he not, believing as he did in the virgin birth and so forth? But he did not follow them slavishly. His was a confessionalism of the spirit and never of the letter. This is why he was willing to think for long stretches with the help of Kant’s epistemology and (later) Hegelian ontology. This is why he was willing to set forth an actualistic understanding of divine and human being. Still, I would argue, his reconstruction of Christian orthodoxy succeeded in upholding all of the theological values that were in play in its originating formulations. For this reason, Barth was both modern and orthodox.[6]

This kind of openness seems scary to some people, but it shouldn’t. If the reality that regulates this type of theological curiosity is Holy Scripture and Jesus Christ; if someone in this theological posture is committed to the spirit of the Protestant Reformed faith; then there is nothing to be fearful of except God in Jesus Christ—which is a healthy, purifying fear.

An Evangelical Calvinist Response

What we have been surveying in regard to Karl Barth’s posture and mode towards the orthodox Christian faith is one that I as an evangelical Calvinist adopt myself. There is some vulnerability here, but only a vulnerability to the reality of Jesus Christ imposing who He is upon me rather than me closing that down by restricting Him to language that only has the capacity to be provisional to begin with. There isn’t an abandonment of the sacred and catholic grammar of the church and the ecumenical councils, including the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms, but there also isn’t a slavish bounded-ness to them in such a way that there is no room for reformulation as dictated by the reality and attestation of Holy Scripture. For an evangelical Calvinist, like myself, there remains room for reformulating things from the ground up, if need be, in light of God’s Self-interpreting Word, in Jesus Christ. While recognizing, along with Barth, the provisional nature of the ecumenical creeds and Reformed Confessions, it is important to me as an evangelical Calvinist, as it was for Barth as his own man, to not think in lesser terms than those provided for by the grammar of the tradition, but instead in greater terms as, again, we as the church of Jesus Christ move closer to the light of God’s life in Christ than when we first believed.

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 15-16.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 195-98 nook version.

[5] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 200.

[6] McCormack, Orthodox and Modern, 17.

A Random Blog Post on Classical Theism

Classical theism is not a monolithic thing, it comes in many shapes and sizes; typically that is associated with the period classical theism is developed within and associated with. Most notably though for Western Christians, particularly us Protestants in the Reformed tradition, classical theism takes much of its shape from Thomas Aquinas. I thought it would be instructive to see how Bruce jesusglory.jpgMcCormack defines classical theism; he writes:

Classical theism presupposes a very robust Creator-creature distinction. God’s being is understood to be complete in itself with or without the world, which means that the being of God is “wholly other” than the being of the world. Moreover, God’s being is characterized by what we might think of as a “static” or unchanging perfection. All that God is, he is changelessly. Nothing that happens in the world can affect God on the level of his being. He is what he is regardless of what takes place—and necessarily so, since any change in a perfect being could be only in the direction of imperfection. Affectivity in God, if it is affirmed at all, is restricted to dispositional states which have no ontological significance.[1]

I think it safe to say that even Karl Barth could fit his understanding of God into this definition provided by McCormack, albeit with qualification. Someone who could not fit into the classical tradition would be Moltmann and the death of God theologians.

Anyway, just a random blog post about classical theism. There are good ways to appropriate and engage with it, and there are bad ways. And of course there are some readings of Barth that would repudiate the hard metaphysicalism in the definition provided by McCormack. In other words some interpretations of Barth don’t allow for the type of metaphysical antecedent theology (like Divine aseity) that classical theism entails. So that is not an uncontroversial point, at least in North America, when it comes to reading Barth.

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, ed., Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008), 186-87.

The Theologians of the Fourfold Word in Conversation with the Theologian of the Threefold Word: The Post Reformed Orthodox and Barth

A theology of the Word is the distinctive gift of the Protestant Reformation. The Word for the Protestant is the principle reality upon which all else is built, whether that be a theory of ecclesial authority or a theology of nature*; the Word of God is the ‘foundation’ (or fundamentum) for Protestant Christianity. Karl Barth was a Protestant (versus Roman Catholic) theologian, as such he based all of his theologizing in a Word-based mode of expression; this was well within the ‘spirit’ if not in some ways the ‘letter’ of the classical or Post-Reformed orthodox articulation of the cropped-whitebarth.jpgProtestant faith (the articulation that stands behind most of Protestant theology even today, at least by way of lineaments and over-lap with Lutheran and Anabaptist theologies in regard to a fundamental commitment to a theology of the Word).

Karl Barth famously articulated his theology of the Word from within a theory of revelation that started from the idea that ‘God has spoken’ (Deus dixit), and he grounded this in an anti-natural theology frame. In other words, Barth was concerned with the idea that humans (like Hitler et al.) could possess and imbue Scripture with their own strength and own machinations; the consequence being that man’s and woman’s voice could sublate or displace God’s living voice (viva vox Dei) in Scripture with their voices. Barth, in his own context and day saw this naturalizing of Scripture played out all too clearly with the development of the third Reich, and Hitler’s madness. So he innovatively articulated a theology of the Word from a theory of revelation that understood its context from the humanity of God’s life in Christ; i.e. the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ not only mediates God’s Word in written and preached form, but is the primacy of Word as the eternal Word of God for humanity (cf. John 1.1) — this is Barth’s understanding of the threefold form of the Word. Bruce McCormack of Princeton Theological Seminary and Kait Dugan of The Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary helpfully and collaboratively write this of Barth’s theory of revelation and doctrine of the Word:

Before it was anything else, Barth’s theology was a theology of the Word of God. The Word of God is, he maintained in the early years of his work on Christian dogmatics (in the 1920s and on into the 1930s), an address; a speaking of divine Person with human persons. But this theology of the Word is also “dialectical theology” – because the Word itself is never more than indirectly available to its human addressees. The Word of God comes to human beings in three “forms”: the humanity of Christ, the words of the prophets and the apostles (i.e. the canonical Scriptures) and the words of preachers. But the “forms” of revelation – even the humanity of Christ – are not “divinized” through God’s use of them in revealing God’s Self. And for that reason, revelation must never be directly identified with the “forms” through which it is divinely mediated. Put another way, revelation is never an “object” which is directly perceptible to human sensory activity (whether sight or hearing), even though God gives God’s Self to be known through “objects” of God’s own choosing. Revelation takes place in a “hiddenness” which is a function of the modality of God’s Self-revelation. To describe revelation in this way is to understand it as “dis-possessive.” The revelation of the Christian God cannot be taken under the control and management of human beings and made to serve the purposes established by human persons. Barth would continue to emphasize the hiddenness of revelation and its “dis-possessive” character throughout his life because he never ceased to be concerned with attending to the freedom of God.[1]

As they articulate this we can maybe sense a bit of Kant in Barth’s thought; but Kant on his head. The noumenal transcendent reality of the eternal Word comes hidden in the phenomenological of the manger, garbed in the real flesh and blood of the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ; but the point is that the Word of God is ever present, ever breaking through the creaturely modes of its deliverance to humanity. First this comes through the humanity of Christ (which is homoousion or consubstantial with God as Christ is the God-man), and then it comes garbed through the broken language of Scripture (albeit inspired anew and afresh as lively testimony) which is given further attestation through its proclamation.

The important thing for us to consider, at least what I would like us to consider, is that for Barth the Word of God is Jesus; and inextricably linked to Jesus are the special words that he commandeers in Scripture as symbols that are given life as they break off and find their reality in and from Him by the Holy Spirit. The thing is, some have attempted to demonize Barth at this point, they have wanted to ridicule him because his understanding of the Word doesn’t fit well within North American developments on inerrancy. But to get hung up on this point could make you miss out on the depth available in Barth’s Christ concentrated theology of the Word; one that is attempting to elevate Scripture within a dogmatic frame, and within a theory of revelation that is grounded firmly in Triune Godself.

And here’s the real reason I am writing this post. It is not to draw lines of correlation that are not there in full, but it is to point up the fact that Barth did not think about such things in a vacuum of his own Swiss/German making. The Post-Reformed Orthodox theologians themselves, who Barth engaged with and learned from with vigor, had a theology of the Word that sounds eerily similar to the intent of Barth’s own compunction. We will close now with a quote from ecclesial historian Richard Muller on how the Post-Reformed Orthodox had their own framing of the Word, not in threefold but fourfold form. You might find it intriguing to see how precedence was already laid down for someone like Barth to come along, within his own context, from his respective “metaphysic,” and appropriate certain categories and extend them out to meet the needs of his own day while remaining faithful to the underlying Protestant commitment to a theology of the Word. With this quote we will close:

The Scripture, upon which true knowledge of God rests, is the Word of God, not a word of man brought into being “by the will of man” but rather the revealed Word of God put in writing at the command of God and through the agency of the Holy Spirit by the prophets and the apostles. Since the Scriptures are the “true Word of God” and have “sufficient authority of themselves”, they supersede all human authority in the “confirmation of doctrines” and the “confutation of all errors. [sic] No authority stands above Scripture except the authority of God himself. Even the great ecumenical symbols of the church, the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, have authority only insofar as they reflect the truth of Scripture.

It is theologically incorrect and historically inaccurate to claim, as some recent writers have done, that the Reformers and the earliest of the Reformed symbols make a distinction between Jesus Christ as the only true Word of God and the Scriptures as Word in the derivative sense of witness to the incarnate Word. Nor can it be argued that any of the confessions — not even the Articles of the Synod of Bern (1532) — so identify revelation with Word and Word with Jesus Christ as to exclude any revelation of God outside of Christ. Both the Reformers and the confessions use the term “Word” with reference to Christ and to Scripture, recognizing that the identity of Christ as the incarnation of the eternal Word and Wisdom of God in no way diminishes but instead establishes the status of Scripture as Word. Thus Scripture is definitively Word, but not exclusively so. Word is, first of all, the eternal Word of God, the personal and archetypal self-knowledge of God. Second, Word is the unwritten revelation of God given to the prophets and the apostles. Third, it is the Word written and, fourth, it is the inward Word of the Spirit which testifies to the heart of truth of Scripture.[2]

Based upon what was shared earlier in regard to Barth we can see, I think, points of convergence and then points of departure relative to the Post-Reformed Orthodox and Barth. But all of that notwithstanding, one way or the other, hopefully for those who might be reticent to tolle lege (take up and read) Barth, maybe some of this will help to squash some of the fear and allow you to realize that Barth was a Protestant theologian working in his day and time (just like the Post Reformed Orthodox) who gave a theology of Word that was faithful to Protestant principles but in an ‘always reforming’ type of way; a way that magnifies Jesus, and may well better address the concerns of 21st century issues than can those voices from the 17th century. The point is, it is possible to constructively resource the past (which I am contending Barth did), which not only honors that past, but speaks in ways that the present can better understand and appreciate.


*Richard Muller writes, “… No Reformed confession, therefore, views natural theology as a preparation for revealed theology, since only the regenerate, who have learned from Scripture, can return to creation and find there the truth of God.” Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Volume Two, Holy Scripture The Cognitive Foundation of Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 154.

[1] Bruce McCormack and Kait Dugan, The Center for Barth Studies, accessed 05-10-2016.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Volume Two, Holy Scripture The Cognitive Foundation of Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 154-55.

It was once the Companion Controversy, now it is the Barth Wars; but what is it?

Maybe like me you have grown weary of what was originally called the Companion Controversy, but because of a recent First Things article by Phillip Cary has been relabeled bartharmyuniformas the Barth Wars. This controversy first started (in print anyway) when Bruce McCormack, of Princeton Theological Seminary, published an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth entitled: Grace and Being: The role of God’s gracious election in Karl Barth’s theological ontology. In this essay he lays out what he believes Barth intended or should have intended by way of his reformulation of Calvin’s doctrine of election, and how that reformulation implicates Barth’s doctrine of God. At base McCormack believes that Barth in Church Dogmatics IV reverses the usual order of things in regard to a doctrine of God. In other words, McCormack believes that election precedes Trinity, which is inverted from classical metaphysical understanding.

But since I want to communicate McCormack’s thesis as clearly as possible in this post (and thus the point of this post), and since I am currently reading Paul Molnar’s book Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology, I thought I would quote someone that Molnar is engaging with in his book. Yes, Molnar does engage with McCormack, but more notably he is responding to (and quite militantly) Ben Myers’ critique of Molnar’s reading of Barth (from Molnar’s earlier book). Myers is in company with McCormack, and as such offers a very clear presentation of the points that distinguish McCormack, himself and others from folks like George Hunsinger, Paul Molnar, D. Stephen Long et al (the other side of the Barth coin who read Barth as if he is more of a “classical” or “metaphysical” theologian). So I thought it would be helpful to share how Myers frames this, and as a result we will have a better understanding about what drives the so called ‘Barth Wars’. Here’s Myers (cited by Molnar):

(1) “The second person of the Trinity is a human being—or rather, the divine-human history enacted in Jesus”; (2) The “logos asarkos … represents … ‘some image of God which we have made for ourselves’”; (3) “from all eternity, there is really no ‘second person of the Trinity’, but only the divine-human history of Jesus of Nazareth”; and finally, (4) “God’s deity is constituted—through God’s own eternal decision—by the way God relates to this particular human being.”[1]

This is the conclusion that Myers derives from the McCormack thesis that Barth in CD IV reverses Trinity and election in a doctrine of God; i.e. that God elects his own being (inner life) as Trinity, and that this election is ontologically defined by God’s choice to not be God without us (i.e. humanity), but with us. As such there is no other being of God other than what is revealed in the history and event of God’s life in Jesus Christ; and history itself (as a result of God’s election) becomes ontologically determinative for who God is in an exhaustive manner—the resurrection being a capstone of this determination. Paul Molnar further summarizes this as it relates to Myers’ position; Molnar’s summary comes just after he has described what he believes to be Barth’s view of divine freedom and how that relates to what he thinks Myers, McCormack, et al. are attempting to do in what he believes (along with Hunsinger) is a revisionist reading of Barth’s theology. Here is Molnar on Myers (and company):

The above-cited very traditional statements about the freedom of God’s love in himself and in the incarnation have been questioned recently. For example, relying on Rowan Williams and Bruce McCormack, Benjamin Myers claims that Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity offers not just one doctrine of the Trinity but two. And from this he concludes that “God’s being as God is constituted by God’s self-determined relation to the human Jesus” and ultimately that “Jesus is not merely epistemologically significant [which is Molnar’s position], as the one who makes God known; he is ontologically significant, as the one who (so to speak) makes God God.” All of this follows, he claims, from the fact that Barth’s doctrine of God was radically changed with his doctrine of election in II/2, and that the doctrine of the Trinity that he presented in I/1 was formally based on revelation while the new doctrine presented in IV/1 was based on Jesus Christ as, in his mind, making God to be God! Now, from within any reasonable reading of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, it should be quite obvious that these claims not only obviate God’s freedom for us, but they destroy God’s freedom as eternal Father, Son and Spirit precisely by making God’s essence dependent on the historical existence of the man Jesus.[2]

If it isn’t clear yet, Molnar believes ultimately that Myers, McCormack, et al. collapse God into his creation by making God’s inner-life (in se) contingent upon (in a constituent way) his outer life (ad extra) in the humanity of Christ; furthermore, Molnar believes that christologically this leads to Arian or Adoptionistic heresies.


This is the crux of what drives the Barth Wars; whether God elects for himself to be Triune in the incarnation, or whether because God is Triune and gracious in his antecedent and eternal life he elects, as coordinate with that kind of life, to not be God without us; with the understanding that God could have remained who he was as Triune without electing humanity for Godself in Christ.

Hopefully, if you have been wondering about the Barth Wars, that this makes things a little more clear (maybe I have muddied it further, I hope not). I mentioned in the beginning of this post how this was originally termed as the Companion Controversy, but I think it has legitimately expanded into what has now been called the Barth Wars; primarily because it isn’t just McCormack and Hunsinger anymore (which was where the original rift was here in North American English speaking Barth studies), but with lines drawn and castles being built, folks have started to take sides (and I do think this is primarily a North American English speaking battle – as I recall Barth scholar Darren Sumner noted somewhere that this battle is not present in German Barth studies [they simply take the McCormack view as the only possible read], but is just here in the States for the most part).

[1] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downer Groves, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2015), 141-42.

[2] Ibid., 134-35 [brackets mine].