Is Thomas Torrance a Thomist or a Barthian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

[2] Torrance, Theological Science, 7.


Theology of Correlation and Analogy of Being: An Evangelical Calvinist Repudiate

Christian theology is as prismatic as the rainbow; there are a variety of ways in based upon multitudinous theories of best methodologies. As an Evangelical Calvinist I have adopted a certain mode for theological endeavor and reflection; a mode that claims to be based, in principal, upon Revelation rather than philosophical discovery and correlation. Bruce McCormack in his book Orthodox and Modern surveys Hans Frei’s five typologies for what he considers to be encompassing of the ways a person can potentially do theology. In the following I want to quote, at length, the way McCormack sketches Frei’s type on theology of correlation. As you will find out, as I follow with my own commentary, I see this type of theologizing as problematic since its basis, in principle, is not to start with Revelation, but instead with some sort of transcendent universally available sense of the Divine (so philosophy in a classical sense).

In the following McCormack, as you will see, engages with Frei as Frei engages with David Tracy’s theology of correlation.

Before turning to the remaining three types, it is worth pointing out the extent to which extremes meet in this typology. However true it may be that type 1 holds optimistically to the existence of theoretical foundations for all knowledge claims while type 5 adamantly denies such a possibility on principle, both wind up with a nonreferential, wholly performative understanding of the meaningfulness of theological language. And thus Frei’s spectrum becomes, as he himself suspected, “like a snake curled in on itself.” To clarify why this should be so, I would suggest that it has everything to do with an insistence on the nonreferential character of theological language. It is only where theological language is understood to be referential, where (in other words) the “reality” described by Christian theologians and philosophers is thought to overlap, that the problem of the relation of external description to internal description can arise at all. As we shall see, it is the latter question and the range of answers given to it which will differentiate types 2, 3, and 4.

The early David Tracy of Blessed Rage for Order is the figure who gives definition to Frei’s second type. For Tracy, like Kaufman, there are “stable, general, and fields-encompassing criteria for meaning (internal conceptual coherence), meaningfulness (language that discloses actual experience), and truth (transcendental or metaphysical explication of the condition of possibility of common human experience).” So type 2 is like type 1 to the extent that both are strictly foundationalist. But a difference arises—on the formal level, at any rate—at the point at which Tracy wants to take Christianity seriously as a concrete religion. Theology does not involve simply the adjustment of theological language to general criteria; Tracy believes that it also entails an “explication of the Christian religion or the Christian ‘fact,’ which has a real specificity of its own and in its integrity has to be correlated to common human experience, the other source of theological reflection, for their mutual compatibility.”

In practice, however, the desire to honor the integrity of the historical givenness of Christian faith (and its object, Jesus of Nazareth) is undermined by Tracy’s procedure. His goal is to “correlate” (i.e., to show the thorough compatibility of) the religious symbols which arise from two sources: “common human experience,” on the one hand, and classical Christian texts (Scripture and tradition), on the other. The first group of symbols he seeks to articulate (or “thematize”) through a phenomenological analysis of an allegedly religious dimension of secular experience. The focus here is, above all, the “basic confidence” which Tracy believes to be an ineradicable feature of all human existence (the confidence that life is worth living). For Tracy, the survival of basic confidence in the midst of certain “limit situations” (i.e., the wholly negative experiences of guilt, anxiety, etc.) demonstrates its ineradicability and raises the question of its ground. He concludes that “basic confidence” has implied within it the cognitive claim that “God” is the ground of that confidence; that is, the only adequate symbolization of that ground is theistic. Tracy then turns to his second source and finds there a “limit language” which is disclosive not only of the very situation which was just thematized through phenomenological analysis but also of a Referent which holds forth the promise that life is indeed meaningful when lived in total commitment to the gracious God of Jesus the Christ.

Though Frei himself does not put it this way, I think it would be fair to say that his principal problem with Tracy’s “theology of correlation” is that no true correlation can ever arise on the foundations laid by him. Christian self-description (the language of Scripture and tradition) has been thoroughly subsumed into the religious symbols attained through phenomenological analysis of “religious dimensions” of human being and existence. And this can happen only because the results of the philosophical analysis are made to be the interpretive key for unlocking the meaning of the New Testament. So Frei is not in the least surprised that Tracy has found in the New Testament precisely what he was looking for; his procedure has guaranteed the outcome in advance. External description and Christian self-description turn out to be one and the same, identical in content. A correlation of tow overlapping but distinguishable descriptions is rendered unnecessary. What is most decisive in defining Frei’s type 2 is the fact that the subsumption of Christian self-description into external description has been made possible by a universally valid integrative theory (which in Tracy’s case is ultimately grounded in a general philosophical anthropology).[1]

What McCormack is describing, in important ways, has a different context from the one I will apply it to; but the principle is present. My application of this recognition of a ‘theology of correlation,’ rather than to someone like Tracy, will be more fitting to my own theological context as an evangelical, Reformed Christian in North America.

The context I often am enmeshed in is indeed the evangelical Reformed context; as such, my theological interlocutors (even if they don’t realize they’re mine) operate in and from a ‘pre-critical’ or premodern ‘theology of correlation’; at least that’s my premise. My interlocutors primarily are drawing off the reappropriation of Thomas’s theology, as that has been mediated in the various Thomisms that are available; particularly as that has been given formation in the 16th and 17th century developments of Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy. This mode of theologizing operates with an inchoate form of ‘theology of correlation.’ They might not think of it that way, they might project what Tracy, for example, has developed from a philosophical anthropology onto the ‘mind of the church’. Nevertheless, the point remains that whether in premodern or modern forms, whether called an analogia entis (analogy of being) or ‘theology of correlation,’ the premises are overlapping and convergent. In other words, both modes of theological endeavor work off the prius that there are catholic or universally available latents or logois of knowledge of God that can be penetrated by appeal to a natural [law] human experience of the divine left in the vestiges and corners of transcendental human apperception.

I don’t see evangelical theologians, particularly of the Reformed type, wrestling very much with these questions. Instead I seem them rushing headlong into the Trad of the church as if this just is the mind of God for the elect. The Evangelical Calvinist repudiates these types of correlations.


[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008), 119-20 [emphasis mine].

The Most Important Thing, Knowledge of God: Actualistic Faith Trumps Stabilized Being

One of the first hooks for me with Barth’s theology was his conception of what is called the analogia fidei (‘analogy of faith’ — in contrast to the classical analogia entis ‘analogy of being’). At first reading and contemplation I thought it was a better way because I was already predisposed against the mechanical universe of classical theism; and the inter-chained hierarchy of being that held it together (think of Thomas Aquinas’s theology and substance metaphysics). In other words, if there was not necessary symmetry (albeit analogically understood and thus asymmetrical at certain levels i.e. Creator/creature) between God and all subsequent contingent reality then how might we as creatures gain a knowledge of God devoid of this type of interrelation between ‘being?’ I didn’t have an articulated sense of this dilemma, maybe just an inchoate unacknowledged sense; but one that came from my working in the area of historical theology with the realization that even in late medieval theology under the impact of the nominalists this ‘chain-of-being’ idea had already been critiqued and found wanting (at least for some). No matter the influence, what I found in Barth’s theology in regard to a theological epistemology (and ontology) resonated and resonates with me deeply. In order to expose you to what I am referring to I am going to transcribe a long quote from Bruce McCormack where he describes the Göttingen Barth’s understanding of knowledge of God. What you will see is that Barth, as a modern, was responding to and working from Kantian categories; nevertheless, what you will also see in McCormack’s development, is that Barth reified and in fact flipped Kant’s categories on their head insofar as the ‘knowing subject’ is not you and me, but instead Jesus Christ for us.

At the heart of Karl Barth’s doctrine of revelation, in the form in which it was first given a relatively full and positive elaboration in the Göttingen lectures on dogmatics, lies the concept of “indirect identity”: in revealing himself God makes himself to be indirectly identical with a creaturely medium of that revelation. Such a relation is indirect because the use made by God of the creaturely medium entails no “divinisation” of it. The veil in and through which God unveils himself remains a veil. And yet it must also be said that in the act of Self-revelation, God is indirectly identical with the creaturely medium. That is to say, the presence of God in the medium of revelation—however hidden it may be outwardly, to normal perception—is the presence of God, complete, whole and entire (without division or diminution). The hiddenness of God in revelation is not to be likened to the hiddenness of the submerged portion of an iceberg. It is not as though part of God is revealed directly while part of God remains hidden to view. No, Barth makes it quite clear that if revelation is Self-revelation (and it is), then revelation means the revelation of God in his entirety—but the whole being of God hidden in a creaturely veil. Nothing of God is known directly; God remains altogether hidden. And yet, where God is truly known in his hiddenness, it is the whole of God which is known and not “part” of God.

Expressed christologically: the process by means of which God takes on human nature and becomes the Subject of a human life in our history entails no impartation of divine attributes or perfections to that human nature. And therefore revelation is not made to be a predicate of the human nature of Jesus; revelation may not be read directly “off the face of Jesus.” And yet it remains true that God (complete, whole, and entire) is the Subject of this human life. God, without ceasing to be God, becomes human and lives a human life, suffers, and dies.

The principle consequence of this conception of an indirect revelation for theological epistemology is that God is the Subject of the knowledge of God. Human beings can know God only by being given a knowledge which corresponds to God’s Self-knowledge. This occurs in that human beings are given the eyes of faith with which to discern that which lies hidden in the veil. Thus conceived, revelation is seen to have two moments; an objective moment (God veils himself in a creaturely medium) and a subjective moment (God gives us faith to know and understand what is hidden in the veil). The objective moment is christological; the subjective moment, pneumatological.

In the Göttingen lectures, the Kantian assumptions with which Barth works in explicating this point of view are especially clear. With Kant, Barth believes that human knowledge is limited to the intuitable, phenomenal realm. And this means that if God (who is unintuitable) is nevertheless to be intuited (and therefore known in the strict, theoretical sense) God must make himself to be phenomenal, that is, God must assume creaturely form. But at this point a further problem arises. In making himself phenomenal, God has entered into the subject-object relation in which the constructive role played by the Kantian categories of the understanding make the human knower the “master” in any and every knowledge relation. So the problem is this: How can God remain God (i.e. the Subject of the knowledge of God) even as God takes on phenomenal form? The answer has everything to do with the fact that God does not make himself directly identical with a phenomenal magnitude but only indirectly so. What occurs in revelation is that the divine Subject lays hold of or grasps the human knowing apparatus through the phenomena from the other side. In this way, the limitations placed on human knowing by the Kantian subject-object split are overcome by a transcendent, divine act.

It should be added that Barth secures the lordship (“mastery”) of God in this knowledge relation by insisting on its actualistic character. It is not the case that God unveils himself through the veil once and for all, as a completed act. If it were so, God would have ceased to act; nothing more would need to be done. But such a view cold be coherently explicated only by the thought that although God was once only indirectly identical with a medium of revelation, at some point in time God became directly identical with it. In this view, nothing further need occur from the divine side. The epistemic relation between God and the human knower would have become fixed, stabilized. Having begun in a relation of absolute epistemic dependency, the human knower would once again have attained the mastery in this relation. To all of this, Barth said no. God is indirectly identical with the medium of his Self-revelation not only before revelation occurs but during the revelation even and after it. Thus Barth could consistently overcome the limitations placed by Kant on the knowledge of God only by insisting upon the actualistic nature of the epistemic relation.

One final clarification: for those of us who are “disciples at second hand,” the place at which God finds access to us (and therefore we to God) is not longer Jesus of Nazareth (who has “ascended on high”); it is, rather, through the medium of the witness of Holy Scripture that God continues to unveil himself. For us, knowledge of God occurs when and where God takes up the language of the biblical witness and bears witness to himself in and through its witness (the objective moment) and awakens in us the faith needed to comprehend that witness (the subjective moment). In that this occurs, a relation of correspondence (the so-called analogia fidei) is established (actualistically!) between God’s knowledge of himself and human knowledge of God. This it is quite clear that the motor that drives Barth’s theological epistemology is the Realdialektik of the divine veiling and unveiling.[1]

Much to digest. I think that what is covered by McCormack in regard to Barth is THE most important locus of theology. In other words, how we come to think about how we have knowledge of God has a prior notion informing it in regard to who we think God is; this seems to be a paradox, or a dialectic. Indeed. I think, often, people just take for granted a certain theological tradition with all of its trappings without considering what in fact those trappings are and where they come from. So we have formal and material realities mutually implicating each other insofar as the object of theology is related to its subject and vice versa. What I think is most important to recognize is that if we presume that we are talking and writing about God as theologians that we’d better have a sound basis for asserting that we are indeed thinking God from God. This is where the classical theistic approach fails in my view. It starts with a ground for knowledge of God in the being of humanity abstract from God, albeit preveniently informed by God’s grace (understood in qualitative terms); a ground that is not grounded previously in God’s being, only upon the asserted supposition that all being is sourced in God’s. Do you see the problem with this? It does not overcome what Barth overcomes in the Kantian form of such knowing; a form of knowing where the human ‘knower’ is the ‘master’ of the knowing apparatus that allows them to assert that they have a point of contact with God outwith a previous ground in God (in a theological taxis ‘order’). This is the genius of Barth’s proposal; it grounds knowledge of God in God and extends that by his grace (who is the Christ) out to us, brings us into that center of knowing by the Holy Spirit, and allows us to think God after God has already thought himself for us in Jesus Christ. So the Deus absconditus is the Deus revelatus.

Theologians will keep on theologizing in their received traditions of theologizing, but for my money I can’t really see how what they are ultimately articulating has much to do with a knowledge of God that is itself grounded in the Self-knowledge of God. I would suggest that the tradition has stumbled upon proper aspects of knowledge of God only insofar as it has sought that in its disclosure borne witness to in Holy Scripture. In other words, the tradition has offered certain categories toward a knowledge of God that have relative gravitas to them only as that has incidentally been arrived at by the theologian’s willingness to seek for such knowledge in Holy Scripture.

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 109-12.

On the ‘Orthodoxy’ of Modern Theology and Its Conservative Evangelical Despisers

To be a purveyor of ‘Modern Theology,’ at least in the conservative evangelical world makes you suspect in regard to your ‘orthodoxy.’ For some reason among conservative evangelical theologians and pastors, in the main, there is this pervasive belief that in order to imbibe a ‘catholic’ faith the church must bring herself to orbit around the classical theism of Thomas Aquinas and the supposed linkage from him to the patristics in regard to a doctrine of God and its implicates towards constructively working out theories of salvation and so forth. Anything after the 18th century, according to this optic, falls off into the sphere of at best, heterodoxy, and at worst, heresy. But when it comes to actually material theological concerns and ideation construction, when an honest effort is made to engage with modern theologians (which I would suggest is rare among the conservative evangelical theologians who believe we must skip past that period back to the catholic faith propounded as nearly as the 16th and 17th centuries and backwards) what is found is the same spirit that has pervaded all theological construction through all the periods. It strikes me as odd! when folks summarily write off the modern period as if people aren’t still people and God still is not God; as if the Enlightenment and Renaissance so upended the epistemological moorings of the world that a new class of ideators was given birth to such that they are best relegated to the land of theological monsters and zombies rather than Christian people and theologians who like the rest of the Christians in the history of the church are attempting in good faith to know God and make him known. When I survey the history of Christian thought what is striking to me is the commonality shared among all the theologians of every period; indeed, in the modern period we see the same types of ideas, even if “sophisticated” in modern dress, being wrestled with as we see in the early church and medieval periods. This is why I continue to scratch my head in wonder when I see young and old conservative evangelical theologians ridiculing, and at best suspiciously engaging with modern theologians; as if they are potentially going to become heretics by mere association.

In an attempt to underscore with some sobriety what modern theology entails when placed upon against the other periods of theological development, here is Bruce McCormack’s sketch. You will notice that he mentions none of what I just have, and instead simply focuses on various theological themes and doctrines to allow such questions, as each period was so preoccupied with them respectively, to be the way into engaging with modern theology among the various other periodized theological developments. This has the effect, I think, of disarming the often antagonistic approach to the moderns, and allows material theological concerns to frame the entryway.

“Modern” theology emerged, in my view, at the point at which (on the one hand) church-based theologians ceased trying to defend and protect the received orthodoxies of the past against erosion and took up the more fundamental challenge of asking how the theological values resident in those orthodoxies might be given an altogether new expression, dressed out in new categories for reflection. It was the transition, then, from a strategy of “accommodation” to the task of “mediation” that was fundamental in the ecclesial sphere. In philosophy, as it relates to the theological enterprise (on the other hand), the defining moment that effected a transition entailed a shift from a cosmologically based to an anthropologically based metaphysics of divine being.

The transitions I have in mind, insofar as they registered a decisive impact on Christian theology, were effected by means of a few very basic decisions in particular. Every period in the history of theology has had its basic questions and concerns that shaped the formulation of doctrines in all areas of reflection. In the early church, it was Trinity and Christology that captured the attention of the greatest minds. In the transition to the early Middle Ages, Augustinian anthropology played a large role—which would eventually effect a shift in attention from theories of redemption to the need to understand how God is reconciled with sinful human beings. The high Middle Ages were the heyday of sacramental development, in which definitions of sacraments were worked out with great care, the number of sacraments established, and so on. The Reformation period found its center of gravity in the doctrine of justification. In the modern period, the question of questions became the nature of God and his relation to the world. Basic decisions were thus made in the areas of creation, the being of God and his relation to the world, and revelation, which were to become foundational for further development in other areas of doctrinal concern. It is to a consideration of these basic decisions that we must now turn in our efforts to understand what it means to be “modern” in Christian theology.[1]

An important aspect to note in McCormack’s sketch is the shift he identifies in the modern period from accommodation to mediation. As David Congdon develops in his big book on Bultmann mediation has much to do with missiology and mission. So if this is the case modern theology as a mediating-factored endeavor focuses on translating received theological concepts into is modern milieu under the intellectual and social pressures present during that time. The fear, of course, is that these ‘pressures’ exert too much force on the translator with the result being that the orthodox faith which is ostensibly being translated becomes a tertium quid and no longer recognizable as a catholic reality as that is defined by the classical theistic confines. Even so, I contend that what modern theologians were doing was far less sinister than it has been made to be, and have very valuable considerations and innovations to offer the ongoing development of the church catholic as she draws nearer and nearer to the unity of the faith once and all delivered to the saints.

On a personal note, because I am vociferously enamored with certain developments in modern theology, and because of that critical of some of the classical theistic project, conservative evangelicals tend to view me with suspicion. This is ironic to me because I am quite conservative evangelical myself. I am hoping that the quote from McCormack illustrates how we might approach modern theology with the sobriety it ought to be approached with, and allow that to temper the constant suspicion and indeed animus that so many operate with towards modern theology. It is true that modern theology and theologians can be and are just as antithetical towards “pre-modern” theologies of retrieval, and the material theological ideas being resourced therefrom, but not all of modern theology has this type of animus; indeed the best modern theologians recognized the relative value of even classical theistic conceptions and constructed their theological programs from there. It would be a blessing if conservative evangelical theologians and pastors could come to the realization that God has spoken (Deus dixit) and that God still speaks (Deus adhuc loquitur) even in the 21st century; indeed he still speaks under the conditions present—intellectual and social—and desires to be heard even in this day.


[1] Bruce L. McCormack, “Introduction,” in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack eds., Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2012), 11, 14 scribd edition.

Alexander Schweizer on The Material Principle of the Protestant Reformation: A Distinction Between the Lutherans and the Reformed

I thought the following was an interesting note made by Bruce McCormack with reference to a distinction that Alexander Schweizer made between Lutherans and the Reformed relative to what they believed to be the material principle of the Protestant Reformation.

In Schweizer’s view, what distinguished the theology of the Reformed churches from Lutheran theology was, initially at least, a differing Grundrichtung. Lutheran theology concerned itself above all with overcoming and eliminating from the church every last vestige of “judaizing”—the teaching that justification occurs through works. Reformed theology, by contrast, was centrally concerned with the “paganization” of the church through the divinization of the creature (e.g., the fundamentally polytheistic worship of Mary and the saints, the sacralization of nature in the Eucharist by means of the doctrine of transubstantiation, etc.).

Out of this initial difference in Grundrichtung, Schweizer argued, there then arose a further difference in “material principle.” According to Schweizer, the material principle of Lutheran theology was the doctrine of justification by faith alone whereas the Reformed churches it was the sense of “absolute dependence on God alone” (which was articulated dogmatically in the doctrine of predestination). Again, this difference in material principle signals a difference in orientation: the two principles in question are directed to two different basic questions which determine the shape of theology taken as a whole. The Lutheran question was, What is it in humankind that makes us blessed? and the answer given was faith, not works. The Reformed question looked in a very different direction. It asked, Who blesses or damns, the creature of God alone? and the answer was, of course, God alone. Therefore, Schweizer concluded, the material principle of the Lutheran Church was anthropological in character; the material principle of the Reformed churches, theological the strictest sense.[1]

If this is the case we might see how this impacted the way Christology developed in the distinct ways it did for the Lutherans and Reformed respectively (which of course was most finely illustrated in the eucharist debates). But if this general identification by Schweizer is correct it might help us to further appreciate how the Lutherans came to emphasize the communicatio idiomatum, in their Christology, whereas the Reformed emphasized the extra Calvinisticum; with the former emphasizing the below and allowing that to condition their relative emphasis of how they thought the hypostatic union, and the latter emphasizing the above.

Just a quick reflection before I head off to bed; good night.


[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 43-4.

Correcting the Errors of Classical Theism and Its Recovery for the Protestant Evangelical Churches: Get God Wrong, Get Everything Following Wrong

Who is God? This basic but all important question has significant ramifications for everything; it is not just a “theological academic” question, it is a question that people live out of every day of their daily lives (whether they are a theist or not). This question drives me in all that I do, and it has for all the years I can remember; one way or the other. This is why I am so passionate about issues revolving around Reformed theology, and theology in general. As a Protestant Christian I have a certain way into thinking God, it is one that is in dialogue with the tradition of the church, but at the same time is not slavishly linked to the tradition when the tradition veers from its subordination to the reality of Holy Scripture, Jesus Christ. It is this commitment, and this reality that continues to propel me forward in my quest to know who God is; it is for this reason that I am an Evangelical Calvinist, so called. An Evangelical Calvinist operates in a mood that is by definition dialogical or dialekin; where an emphasis on a living encounter with God’s Word in Christ is elevated, and the ability, therein, is given to continue to know God in ever deepening and freshening ways. As a result of this way engaging with the tradition of the church, particularly when it comes to theology proper, provides certain concrete parameters, or least grammars, but it is not necessarily the end of the discussion only the beginning. For the remainder of this post we will look briefly at the tradition, in regard to a doctrine of God, and then will use that as the foil to highlight the better way that I have found in Barth’s theology and in modern theology in general. We will conclude this post with my fleeting thoughts on why I think this is important for what I will call ‘church theology’ (some call this “practical theology”).

In one part of the medieval tradition of the church, when it came to a theology proper, we had what is known as nominalism; often William of Ockham is noted as its primary purveyor (even if that is under contest today). In nominalism there are two ways to think God: 1) God as he is in eternity in himself (in se), which is tied into his ‘power’ or what is called potentia absoluta; 2) God as he is in the economy (ad extra) of salvation in temporal history, which is also tied into his ‘power’ and what is called potentia ordinata. The effect of this conception is to present a rupture, potentially, between who God is in eternity (in his antecedent life), and who God is in Jesus Christ in the Incarnation and salvation history (in life concrete). The nominalist way of securing a relationship between these two modes of God was to inject a concept of ‘covenant’ into the mix resulting, as the case may be, in an ad hoc relationship between God and the world; one that was based, indeed, upon God, but one that did not secure a relationship between the God in eternity and his acts in time such that his acts in time in Jesus Christ necessarily had any relationship to who God really was or might be in his interior life (we might also want to bring Scotus voluntarism into the discussion at this point as well).

So we have the aforementioned in the history, and that gets appropriated and redressed in the Post Reformed Orthodox period (16th/17th c.); it is this type of distinction that really never leaves us, even in the modern period. Here is an example of this in the theology of Herman Gollwitzer, as that is critiqued by Eberhard Jüngel, according to David Congdon. What I want the reader to see is not only how this sort of dualism continues to persist, but how someone like Jüngel responded to it. What I hope the reader will recognize is the sort of development inherent to a doctrine of God, and that even the moderns, with all the sloppy talk of them ALL distorting a doctrine of God, instead were steeply engaged with an orthodox doctrine of God while at the same time attempting to provide for better treatments wherein knowledge of God could be secured, and controlled by a concentrated referral to God’s Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. Here is Congdon on Jüngel and Gollwitzer:

The fundamental criticism Jüngel levels against Gollwitzer is that he posits a bifurcation in God’s being between nature and will, between essence and existence. In other words, Gollwitzer inserts an ontological separation between “God-in-and-for-God-self” and “God-for-us,” between Deus in se and Deus pro nobis. Jüngel summarizes the issue in the following way: “Gollwitzer stresses . . . that the mode of being [Seinsart] of revelation has its ground ‘not in the essence of God but in the will of God,’ so that it is ‘not possible per analogiam to infer back’ from the understanding of God’s being-as-revelation in the mode of being [Seinsweise] of an innerhistorical subject ‘to the essence of God in the sense of God’s constitutive nature [Beschaffenheit], but only to the essence of God’s will, i.e., from God’s will as made known in history to God’s eternal will as the will of God’s free love’” (ibid., 6). Gollwitzer affirms that God ad extra reveals God ad intra, but he rejects the notion that God’s historical acts reveal God’s eternal being; instead, they only reveal God’s eternal will. Gollwitzer backs away, then, from the work of theological ontology. He does this in order to preserve God’s freedom, which Gollwitzer secures by—as Jüngel puts it—leaving “a metaphysical background in the being of God that is indifferent to God’s historical acts of revelation” (ibid.). He separates the “essence of God” from the “essence of God’s will”: the former existing as the ontological ground of the latter, though otherwise having no obvious relation to it. The constitution of God’s eternal being is, therefore, static and unaffected by the acts of God in time and space. Unfortunately, in speaking about the “essence of God’s will” Gollwitzer failed to speak correspondingly of the “will of God’s essence” (ibid.). By separating essence and will he ends up creating an abstract hidden “God behind God,” in which case there is no guarantee that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is ontologically the same God who exists from all eternity.[1]

This sounds similar to my sketch of the potentias; I think. This is a continuing and pervasive problem in the churches; particularly as the evangelical churches attempt to resource the categories developed for a doctrine of God in the mediaeval and Post Reformation Reformed orthodox periods. Whether the resourcing is on the nominalist, Thomist, or Scotus side, the problem remains in the sense that there is always a rupture placed between God’s inner life and outer life; between God’s essence and acts. The problems, on a continuum, vis-à-vis the various traditions, can be nuanced in significant ways, and some do better than others in closing the gap between the problem we see illustrated by Gollwitzer’s distinction, but the problem remains (e.g. appeal to decrees or the decretum absolutum). We see, according to Congdon’s development, Jüngel’s critique of Gollwitzer; it is this tradition of critique that developed in the modern period (which is constantly derided as doing irreparable damage to a doctrine of God; thus part of the emphasis for theology of retrieval by evangelical conservatives) that we will turn to through appeal to Bruce McCormack’s development of Karl Barth’s own critique and movement beyond another modern theologian named Alexander Schweizer. As with Gollwitzer and the Nominalists et al., Schweizer similarly has this problem of having an excess of God that stands above or behind the back of Jesus Christ. Barth seeks to correct this—and I think he does!—pervasive problem by using the traditional category of election with the function of bringing God in eternity and his acts in time together in the singular person of Jesus Christ. He writes:

That election is “the sum of the Gospel” was grounded by Karl Barth in the fundamental claim that the primary object of election is not humankind but God himself. In Barth’s view, the primal decision of God (the “decree” if you will) is never to be God apart from humankind. Alternately expressed, God chooses himself for us; God decides himself for grace. In this wholly gracious, wholly free, unconditional primal decision of God for grace is contained in nuce all else that follows in time: the election of the eternal Son for incarnation, suffering, and death on a cross; the election in him of the whole of humanity for communion with God; the outpouring of the Spirit, the creation and upbuilding of a community of believers who represent the whole of humanity. It is at this point that Barth’s most original contribution to the historical development of the doctrine of election must be seen to lie. In making God to be not only the subject of election but also its primary object, Barth was making election to be the key of his doctrine of God. Barth would have been in formal agreement with the Schweizerian dictum “What God does in time must be grounded in the eternal being of God”; indeed, it was one of his most cherished convictions. But the material connections in which such a claim stands in Barth’s theology as a whole give it a very different meaning than it had for Alexander Schweizer.

Barth took as the starting-point for all of his dogmatic reflections the Self-revelation of God in the history of Jesus Christ, that is, the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the God-man. To put it this way is already to suggest that the starting-point is not simply the man Jesus as he appeared on the surface of history. The starting-point is the God-man as witnessed to in Scripture, and the history of this God-man begins in the way taken by God in taking to himself a fully human life as his very own (in all its limitations, up to including death). It is this history which Barth has in mind.

On the basis of the Self-revelation, he then asked, what must God be like if he can do what he has in fact done? What is the condition of the possibility in eternity for the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God in time? In taking this approach, Barth was taking a principled stance against the more traditional procedure (followed in large measure by Schweizer) of beginning with an “abstract” concept of God (which is to say, one that has been completely fleshed out without reference to God’s Self-revelation in Christ) and only then turning to that revelation to find in it confirmation of what was already attributed to God without it. Such a procedure, as we have already seen in relation to Schweizer, determines in advance what revelation in Christ will be allowed to say. Against this procedure employed by theism in all its forms (classical and neo-Protestant), Barth proposed to work in an a posteriori fashion, beginning not with a general concept of God or a general concept of human being but with a most highly concrete reality, Jesus Christ. And so, if God has in fact done something, it will not do to say that God cannot do it. Theologically responsible reflection will only be able to ask, What is the eternal ground for God’s acts in time?[2]

The ‘procedure’ for Barth, as McCormack details, was to refer theological method to the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, as decisive for reflecting upon who God is. In this procedure the gap is closed between God’s being in eternity and time, not by appeal to speculative or discursive means made by assertion via the theologians, but instead by appeal to God himself as that is revealed by Godself in God clothed with the particular flesh of the man from Nazareth. This becomes important precisely because it dispossesses the controls for considering who God might be away from the theologians, and places that within the control of God as now regulated by God’s Self-revelation in Christ. The ‘God of eternity’ in his immanent life is now the same God we see in the ‘God of the economy’ in the life of Christ. For Barth, according to McCormack, the even more radical reality is that God has freely elected to not be God without us, and has chosen that this be the very ground of his ‘being’ as God; as that is realized in his becoming for us in grace (this of course is not uncontroversial in North American Barth studies).


In closing, in an attempt to make this already too long of a blog post shorter than it could be, let me bring some of this home in more personal terms. When I am sitting in the pew at church on Sunday mornings in my evangelical conservative church that is committed to recovering the God articulated in the Post Reformed orthodox period it becomes difficult for me to sit there without at least squirming. Some people want to reduce Christian ministry to meeting the needs of broken people with the love of Christ, and this reduction entails the minimization of rigorous doctrinal reflection in the name of expediency for the Christian ministry. But what if the God you think you are doing ministry for and in the name of is different than the God you think you are doing ministry for; viz. will who God is, and your understanding of that impact the type of ministry you are doing? Is all of this awash in the end such that our good intentions will cover the multitude of theological errors we operated under? God’s grace is certainly bigger than our misunderstandings, but this does not excuse us from being people of the truth and ‘aiming for perfection’ as the Apostle Paul exhorts us to. But this is why I am troubled when sitting in church and I hear, over and again, things asserted about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that I KNOW are not from the Bible but instead derive from the speculative thoughts and developed traditions of the theologians; and these traditions simply received based upon the good-will of the people in the name of conservative Protestant orthodox theology.

In short: I want my understanding of God to be regulated and controlled by God, under the constraints he has set out for himself in his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Does this mean we no longer have to rigorously work out what even this type of theology proper looks like? No. But it means we are much better footing than before. If we get God wrong all subsequent thinking following, all subsequent doctrinal developments will be awry. Simply dismissing this—as almost ALL conservative evangelical theologians do—as merely Barthian or modern theological rubbish shouldn’t be taken that seriously, and they should quit taking themselves so seriously. I realize that I am mostly speaking into the wind, but be that as it may, hopefully there are some of you in the wind who have ears to hear and eyes to see even in the midst of the storm.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 15 n19. [emphasis mine]

[2] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 57-8.

Demythologizing the Theology of Karl Barth: On the Unhistorical Nature of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

I’m going to get back to posting more on Barth’s theology once again; and with that a series of posts, scattered about, on modern theology and the value I see in it for the evangelical churches. This will be the first post of many with these sorts of emphases as the fund. In this post I want to briefly highlight an aspect of Barth’s theology that is often caricatured and thus misunderstood; indeed it is an aspect that has been used against him to paint him as a heretic, and someone not to be trusted by the evangelicals. I am referring to Barth’s doctrine of resurrection. The claim is often made that Barth rejected the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and as such, the logic goes, he should be understood as a liberal theologian not to be affirmed. The first time I ever heard of Barth (much before I went to bible college or seminary) was probably back in 1994 on Christian radio; the person talking brought up Barth, and how, indeed, he denied the resurrection of the Christ. This was the very first time I had ever heard the name of Karl Barth, and because of that whenever I heard his name latterly my antennae would go up and I would immediately think “heretic.” I’m thankful that since then I have received teaching that has led me in the more accurate way in understanding Barth’s actual theology, and the superstructure supporting it.

In the following we will hear from Bruce McCormack and his quick sketch of how Barth thought of resurrection. You will notice that Immanuel Kant is mentioned, and you will see how Barth’s theology of resurrection is intended to respond to the Kantian categories; indeed, to respond in a way that uses Kant’s categories, but in such a way that it reifies them by allowing the living God to populate them with the theological cogency and urgency that the ground establishing reality of the resurrection provides for as the prius that makes all things new in a theological epistemology (as that is grounded in a theological ontology). McCormack writes of the Romerbrief Barth:

For the Barth of the second edition of Romans, the resurrection event is revelation. But the resurrection is an event which is “unhistorical.” By this, Barth did not mean that the resurrection occurred in some other realm than that of the space and time in which we live. The resurrection was already understood by him at that time as a “bodily, corporeal, personal” event. That which happens to a body (whether living or dead makes no real difference) happens in space and time. In stressing the “unhistorical” character of the resurrection, then, what Barth meant to say was that it was not an event to be laid alongside other events. It was not an event produced by forces operative in history. History does not produced something like a bodily resurrection—not in our experience, anyway. For that, an act of God is required. But an act of God is just as unintuitable as the being of God. We may see its effects, but we do not see the thing itself; hence, Barth’s insistence that the resurrection event has no extension whatsoever on the historical plane known to us; hence, also, his insistence that Jesus as the Christ can be understood only as a problem, as a myth. Seen in material terms, Barth’s solution to the problem created by Kant was to suggest that the unintuitable divine power which was at work in raising Jesus from the dead cast a light backwards, so to speak, on an event which is intuitable, namely, the event of the cross. Light is cast on this event, a power is exercised, so that without setting aside or altering the human cognitive apparatus as described by Kant, the limitations inherent to that apparatus are transcended. The unintuitable God is revealed to faith through the medium of an intuitable event. Revelation reaches its goal in the human recipient, and knowledge of God is realized.[1]

As I noted, Barth, especially the early Barth, was working in and from Kantian categories; albeit from a Schleiermacherean theological tradition (as far as theological epistemology goes). And so this should help explain why Barth places his doctrine of resurrection on a different plane than ‘normal’ history works and thinks from. Barth sees resurrection as revelation which by the miracle of faith, for the believer, becomes the objective ground upon which knowledge of God and his reality can be known. This is why McCormack keeps bringing up ‘intuitable’ and ‘unituitable,’ this was the dilemma or at least the categorical matrices which Kant presented Barth and the moderns with; i.e. the dualist idea of the ‘phenomenal’ and the ‘noumenal.’ Barth sought for a way, under these pressures, to outthink Kant, by thinking with Kant through Christological realities that would “satisfy” the Kantian categories by using the theological categories of Deus absconditus (‘the hidden God’) and Deus revelatus (‘the revealed God’) as the corollaries of the Kantian noumenal/phenomenal to throw these very categories into Christian theological refreshment.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. As McCormack develops further while Barth, in Romans, was moving in the right directions he still did not have a robust response to Kant; not a fully christologically funded response anyway. This negligence, according to McCormack, wouldn’t start to be addressed, and thus flourish, until we get to the Göttingen Barth where the patrological categories of an/enhypostasis come into vision of Barth’s theological optics. As we leave Barth in Romans all he has resource to, as far as closing the gap between the noumenal (unintuitable) and the phenomenal (intuitable) is to refer to the power of God. What an/enhypostasis supplies the Göttingen Barth with is a way to round out the person of Christ as the fertile ground upon which resurrection gains the required theological ontology in order for a theological epistemology to rise that is fully Christ concentrated and thus pneumatologically resourceable in regard to making sense of how the hidden God could remain hidden in the incarnation and at the same time knowable. We will have to develop these themes later.

What I really wanted to underscore was that for the contextual Barth there is much more to the story than the caricatures portend. As McCormack has helped us see, for Barth, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was bodily, corporeal, and real; it’s just that it is unable to be explained by referencing normal historiographical lenses precisely because, on Barthian terms, the resurrection itself is history-granting. We leave in this vein with a quote from Robert Dale Dawson, which fits in well with some of the insights we’ve already gleaned from McCormack:

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[2]

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 29-30.

[2] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

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.