Christology

Encounter with the ‘Helper who Helps’: Christians Are Bonded to a Person, Not a Principle.

The Apostle Paul, before he was the Apostle Paul, and on his way to becoming the Apostle Paul had an encounter with the living Savior, the God-man, Jesus Christ. Luke recounts this happening in Acts of the Apostles when he writes:

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.[1]

Paul came to Christ through encounter with Christ; when he was confronted with the resurrected and living reality of reality Hisself. What was Paul to do in this moment? He could have still rejected the encounter, and attempted to explain it away. But the reality was so compelling and the consequences so real that his choice was, in a sense, made for him, by the One who encountered him; seemingly out of nowhere.

This brings up the issue of how God’s Self-revelation works. For Søren Kierkegaard he held that the kind of encounter the Apostle Paul had, post-ascension, is just as powerful, if not more so, as it would have been for those who actually were physically alive and walked with Jesus during his public ministry and time on earth. The reality being, that either way, what is required is that someone have eyes of faith and ears of hearing to actually appreciate who Christ is. In other words, a pure empiricism, positivism, rationalism, and/or physicalism will never suffice in providing the kind of visio required to see that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Here is how Andrew Torrance (in his published PhD dissertation) distills Kierkegaard’s understanding:

When an immediate contemporary of Jesus would have first met him, she would have noticed nothing more than a mere human being. In his physical appearance, in the lowly form of a servant, Jesus only served to communicate a ‘teaching’: information that a person could directly apprehend for herself. Such teaching, however, as we saw in Chapter 1, can only relatively inform a person’s immanent understanding. The life of faith, by contrast, requires a person to become totally transformed through a relationship with the eternal-historical teacher, the God in time, the one who is the truth for humanity. For this reason, the object of faith is ‘not the teaching but the teacher’. Or, as Anti-Climacus puts it, ‘The helper is the help’. The Christian is primarily called to follow a person, not a standard or a principle. So, by merely observing Jesus Christ and contemplating his message, there is no direct communication of the essential truth of Christianity. For the truth to be revealed, Jesus’ appearance must serve as an occasion for God to give a person the condition for understanding the truth. God must encounter a person and draw that person into a relationship with the eternal truth that God is in himself. In Climacus’ account, it is only through the eternal-historical events of God’s self-mediation that a person is delivered into a life of faith. As such, the only purpose that the direct teaching serves is to provide an occasion, ‘an historical point of departure’, by which a person can relate consciously to the eternal truth and develop ‘the passion of faith’. This occasion, he argues, is no more accessible to the physical contemporary of the god in human form than it is to the one who comes later. Climacus writes:

Just as the historical becomes the occasion for the contemporary to become a disciple [Discipel] – by receiving the condition, please note, from the god himself (for otherwise we speak socratically) – so the report of the contemporaries becomes the occasion for everyone coming later to become a disciple – by receiving the condition, please note, from the god himself.

So, for Climacus, the person who becomes aware of the servant god through a physical encounter holds no advantage for faith over the person who comes across him via a second-hand account….[2]

Don’t miss what’s going on here. According to A. Torrance, Kierkegaard is arguing that, for one thing, the person and work/teaching of Jesus Christ comes as a piece; with the person (eternal Logos) taking precedence, in an ontological way, over the ‘teaching’. But note, the historical teaching became and currently becomes the ‘occasion’ or point of departure wherein the encounter with the ‘Person’ takes place (think of something like Moses and the burning bush). In other words, what’s important for our purposes, is to realize that faith is not a thing, but when encounter with Christ takes place, faith comes built into that encounter, because it is a personal encounter with a real and living Person; with Jesus Christ. The encounter itself becomes the nexus from within which the bond of connection between Christ and the “encounteree” inheres. In other words, faith is contingent upon the choice of Godself to be for us in encounter with us, in the hypostatic union and mediating reality of God to human/human to God that inheres in Christ. As we meet Jesus, all that is required for that meeting to be eternally fruitful is already in place because of the character and works (for us) of the One initiating the encounter; i.e. Jesus Christ.

[1] Acts 9:1-9, NRSV.

[2] Andrew B. Torrance, The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 78-9.

Analogia Incarnatio: How the Christian Reality is Focused on an Embodied Existence: Incarnation Contradicts Gnosticism

The Christian reality isn’t “some angels in the heavens floating on white puffy clouds playing harps before God” faith; instead it is a richly and concretely embodied reality that places great emphasis upon bodily and physical reality. Note the Apostle Paul in his argument to the Corinthians (at length):

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39 Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another.41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. 42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.50 What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

There is a one-to-one continuity between the pre-resurrection body, and the resurrected body; the perishable and the imperishable; the mortal and immortal body. The argument could be pressed further from the scriptural text (think of John 11 and 12 wherein we have more resurrection themes in the Dominical teaching; a correspondence between the ‘seed that falls into the ground and sprouts as a new blade of grass from what appears to be its deathly seeded life’). But for our purposes, the reference to the Apostle Paul will suffice. Christians believe, intensively, in the ‘good’ and ‘very good’ nature of embodied and physical reality; it’s at the very touchstone of ‘the faith’: for if Jesus did not raise from the dead we are of most people all to be pitied.

I preface this post in this way because I want to delve into the wonderful world of Gnosticism (maybe not so wonderful, actually). Gnosticism antedates Christianity, at least according to JND Kelly, in incipient or proto ways in what he identifies as a Jewish Gnosticism. But at the advent of Christianity, post-Pentecost, just as we have this kind of [super]natural organic movement from the ‘shadow’ of Judaism (i.e. the promises cf. Rom. 11.29), to the ‘substance’ in Christ (i.e. the fulfillments cf. Col. 2.18); this movement also takes place from the Jewish forms of Gnosticism[s] into Christian adaptations. Gnosticism, in the main, is a dualistic cult that generally teaches that ‘matter’ or the material world is evil, and the ‘spiritual’ or eternal world is pure and sacrosanct. The word Gnostic is ascribed to this belief framework because ‘gnosis’ (or ‘knowledge’), for the Gnostic, is the key for escaping the evil material world, and finding salvation in the eternal and abstract world of pure spirit. JND Kelly, at length, details all of this this way:

First, most of the Gnostic schools were thoroughly dualistic, setting an infinite chasm between the spiritual world and the world of matter, which they regarded as intrinsically evil. Secondly, when they tried to explain how the material order came into existence, they agree in refusing to attribute its origin to the ultimate God, the God of light and goodness. It must be the result of some primeval disorder, some conflict or fall, in the higher realm, and its fabricator must have been some inferior deity or Demiurge. Where the Old Testament was accepted as authoritative, it was easy and natural to identify him with the Creator-God of the Jews. Thirdly, the Gnostics all believed that there is a spiritual element in man, or at any rate in the élite of mankind, which is a stranger in this world and which yearns to be freed from matter and to ascend to its true home. Fourthly, they pictured a mediator or mediators descending down the successive aeons or heavens to help it achieve this. These ideas were expounded in a setting of elaborate pseudo-cosmological speculation, and extensive use was made of pagan myths, the Old Testament concepts borrowed from Far Eastern religions.

In this way, then, the Gnostics sought to explain the riddle of man’s plight in a universe he feels to be alien to himself. But what of the redemption they offered? Here we come to the distinctive feature which gives Gnosticism its name. In all the Gnostics systems redemption is brought about by knowledge, and it is the function of the divine mediators to open the eyes of ‘pneumatic’ men to the truth. ‘The spiritual man’, the disciples of the Valentinian Marcus declared. [sic] ‘is redeemed by knowledge’; while according to Basilides, ‘the Gospel is knowledge of supramundane things’. In other words, when a man has really grasped the Gnostic myths in all their inwardness, and thus realizes who he is, how he has come to his present condition, and what is that ‘indescribable Greatness’ which is the supreme God, the spiritual element in him begins to free itself from the entanglements of matter. In the vivid imagery of Valentinus’s Gospel of Truth, before he acquires that knowledge, he plunges about like a drunken man in a dazed state, but having acquired it he awakens, as it were, from his intoxicated slumbers. Irenaeus has a colorful passage describing how the possession of esoteric knowledge—of the abysmal Fall, of Achamoth, of the Demiurge and so forth—was supposed to enable the Gnostic to overcome the powers confronting him after death, and so traverse the successive stages of his upward journey.

It is easy to understand the fascination which the Gnostic complex of ideas exercised on many Christians. The Church, too, professed to offer men saving knowledge, and set Christ before them as the revelation of the Father. There was a powerful strain in early Christianity which was in sympathy with Gnostic tendencies. We can see it at work in the Fourth Gospel, with its axiom that eternal life consists in knowledge of God and of Christ, and even more clearly in such second-century works as 2 Clement and Theophilus’s Ad Autolycum. As we noticed above, Clement of Alexandria freely applied the title ‘gnostics’ to Christians who seemed to have a philosophic grasp of their faith. It is the existence of a genuinely Christian, orthodox ‘gnosis’ side by side with half-Christian, heretical or even non-Christian versions which in part accounts for the difficulty in defining Gnosticism precisely. As has been shown, many of the Gnostic teachers mentioned above sincerely regarded themselves as Christians, and there is an element of truth in the thesis that their systems were attempts to restate the simple Gospel in terms which contemporaries would find philosophically, even scientifically, more satisfying. The root incompatibility between Christianity and Gnosticism really lay, as second-century fathers like Irenaeus quickly perceived, in their different attitudes to the material order and the historical process. Because in general they disparaged matter and were disinterested in history, the Gnostics (in the narrower, more convenient sense of the term) were prevented from giving full value to the fundamental Christian doctrine of the incarnation of the Word.[1]

Much to digest. But I wanted to give a fuller context because I don’t think many Christians really grasp what the early Christian thinkers were up against. And this is ironic since what we count as ‘orthodox’ Christian doctrine today was constructed in precise ways to counter the teachings of folks like the Gnostics.

Another reason I wanted to highlight Gnosticism comes back to how I opened this article. Christianity is embodied reality; it entails body and soul realities, and sees such realities as an integrated whole. In other words, I fear that the early Gnosticism we just sketched still lives on in many expressions of 21st century Christian modes of thought. For example, the Dispensationalists, where my rootage comes from in my Christian heritage, emphasizes an ‘escape’ from this world through a secret coming of Jesus Christ for the church: commonly known as the rapture. At that point, this approach believes, the world will plummet into all out hell on earth finally and only overcome at the second coming of Jesus Christ. It will be at that time, according to Dispensational thought, that a thousand year reign of Christ will ensue only to terminate in one more battle between evil and good (i.e. the Demonic hoard of Satan), and then God will destroy this earth by fire. In other words, the “elite” or Christians will be cloistered away under the wings of the Divine Host somewhere aloof in the heavenlies, at which point a new heavens and earth will be created. The problem is, and the link between Gnosticism here is, is that there is no one-to-one correspondence between this earth we currently inhabit and the new heavens and earth to come. This is Gnostic teaching, it is not Christianity.

Let me not digress too much. The biblical teaching, and the early Christian teaching counter to the Gnostic teaching (of whatever varying expression that might take, ‘back then’ or now) is that these bodies we currently inhabit will themselves be metamorphized (cf. Phil. 3.20-21), and recreated just like Jesus’s was in the resurrection/recreation of his body (cf. I Jn. 3.1-3). What this implies is that there is continuity between the very goodness of this earth and these bodies with the elevated goodness of this earth and these bodies to come, in the age to come (in the consummation).

The analogia incarnatio (‘analogy of the incarnation’) puts to death all expressions of Gnosticism. Even though Gnosticism proper was something the early Fathers dealt with, as Christian thinkers in the 21st century we are no less confronted with a neo-Gnosticism of today. As TF Torrance has noted though, and with this we will close, what orthodox Christians think from is the reality and particularity of the mystery of the incarnation: i.e. God become [hu]man. If this bedrock reality does not flood our minds and hearts as Christians in such a way that all of our thinking is not colored by it, then we are thinking probably much more in line with the Gnostics than from within the Christian reality.

‘The Word was made flesh’ – but what is meant by flesh? John means that the Word fully participates in human nature and existence, for he became man in becoming flesh, true man and real man. He was so truly man in the midst of mankind that it was not easy to recognise him as other than man or distinguish him from other men. He came to his own and his own received him not. He became a particular man, Jesus, who stands among other men unsurpassed but unrecognised. That is the way he became flesh, by becoming one particular man. And yet this is the creator of all mankind, now himself become a man.[2]

[1] JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 26-8.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Robert T. Walker (Downer Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 61.

No Theology Proper Behind the Back of Karl Barth: Just Say Nein to Theologies that Try to Talk God without the Primacy of Christ

I was reading Cornelius van der Kooi’s and Gijsbert van den Brink’s recently released Systematic Theology: Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction. I am really enjoying it. Just as they are getting into a Doctrine of God, with particular focus on God as Trinity, they say this in regard to attempting to do theology as if Karl Barth had never come on the scene:

In our opinion it is impossible (as [John] Frame proposed) to go back to a pre-Barthian nonchristological understanding of the doctrine of God. The Christian concept of God is not generally theistic in nature, with a specifically Christian appendix coming only at the end. From the very start it is determined and colored by the one who was “in the bosom of the Father” and has made him known (John 1:18). In John’s eschatological vision we discover at the center of God’s throne “a Lamb standing as though it had been slain”—a picture of the crucified and risen Christ (Rev 5:6). He is the image of God (Col 1:15), which will apparently determine our view of God in eternity. We should not try to think about God apart from him.[1]

I could not agree more. This is why I have been so drawn to Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance); what he did was attempt to do theology as if theology could only be done as if Christology happened first. We are Christians after all, and we therefore are to read the Bible and know God in and through Jesus Christ. This something I picked up years prior to coming across Barth, i.e. the idea that the Bible is all about Jesus (cf. John 5.39). This is why I have such a hard time attempting to think theologically alongside so many of my comrades of today in a way that wants to pretend like Karl Barth was never on the scene in a seriously revolutionary way for the theological endeavor; for the church of Jesus Christ in these last days.

As we can see, Kooi and Brink have John Frame in mind as an example of someone who wants to try and do theology as if Karl Barth’s Christ concentrated approach never existed, but there is someone even more contemporary than that (although she fully recognizes the significance of Barth, she just disagrees with his Christological approach). I am referring to Katherine Sonderegger; here is something I wrote about her in review of her ST for the journal Cultural Encounters:

Katherine Sonderegger in the preface to her Systematic Theology, Volume One, The Doctrine of God makes her disdain for the turn to the Trinity for thinking God very clear; she writes: “Perhaps nothing so marks out the modern in systematic theology as the aversion to the scholastic treatise, De Deo Uno. (p. xiv) She believes the Trinity, because of Karl Barth primarily, has taken such pride of place as to crowd out the prime reality that Christian theology first and foremost, when it comes to a theology proper, is a monotheistic faith. She regrets the impact that so called Trinitarian theology has had upon the reality of God’s Oneness; she writes of the De Deo Uno vis-à-vis De Deo Trino, “It belongs not to the preface but rather the body of the dogmatic work to lay out the broad movement in present day dogmatics that has pressed the treatise De Deo Trino to the fore; indeed, it crowds out and supplants the exposition of the One God.” (p. xiv)[2]

If you read her ST in full, it becomes clear that she thinks Barth has gone awry by so focusing on Christology and/or the Trinity as the preamble, as it were, to developing a theological doctrine of God, that she thinks God’s singularity (his “Oneness”) is lost. But again, in agreement with Kooi and Brink, and against Sonderegger, in this instance, as Christians we do not think God in generically theocentric terms, but instead from His Self Revelation in Jesus Christ; in and from the particularity and scandalous reality of the ‘hidden God’ (Deus absconditus) as the ‘revealed God’ (Deus Revelatus) in Jesus Christ. We are Christians not philosophers, per se, after all.

What I am registering in this post is nothing new for me, of course; but I actually believe that what Barth has done has global impact, or it should! As Christians we are ‘people of the Book,’ as such we follow the “narrativity” of Holy Scripture as our ‘lamp’ for introduction to God in Christ. This is what Barth was all about, he simply wanted to follow the Reformed Scripture principle, and because he did his theologizing has been labeled by some as ‘narrative theology’ (Robert Jenson being a student of Barth who has run with that style of theologizing). The approach, in this way, is more hermeneutical than it is metaphysical; it does not deny or ignore the metaphysical, but it reorients things in such a way that the economy of God’s life in salvation history, which has always already found its telos (‘purpose’) in Christ, grounds how Christians should approach God through and through. It prefers to be naïve when it comes to philosophical theology, and instead focuses on biblical theology.

It is more than ironic to me that those in the conservative Reformed and evangelical world (which I myself inhabit) critique Barth as if they are the one’s following the Bible, and Barth was either a heretic, or at least severely heterodox. It is ironic to me that those who claim to follow sola scriptura by the letter want to diminish Barth as a biblical theologian when in fact Barth was the one who was attempting to stick most closely to the text of Scripture, and engage as little as possible with medieval substance metaphysics; i.e. the metaphysics that grounds the theologizing of the conservative Reformed and evangelical types of today. Who is genuinely more biblical in their theologizing than Karl Barth? For my money: no one!

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 147 [brackets mine].

[2] Bobby Grow, “Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology, Volume One: The Doctrine of God,” Cultural Encounters 11:2 (2016): 105.

Athanasius’s Salvation as Logos Grounded Christ Conditioned Image of the Image Theology

I have written on this Athanasian Christological and soteriological theme previously, but I thought it would be good to reiterate it; particularly as I am continuing to read through Thomas Weinandy’s book Athanasius: A Theological Introduction. What I am referring to is the idea that the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ is the Pauline imago Dei as referenced in Colossians 1.15; and what happens in the Incarnation, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is that humanity, through the vicarious humanity of Christ, is recreated in and through the archetypal and resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ. In other words, we are recreated in the image of God, who is Christ, which would mean we are now images of the image. As Weinandy explicates (and Athanasius makes clear himself in his book Incarnation), Athanasius sees a direct soteriological linkage between this “re-imaging” of humanity in Christ’s; i.e. that without God entering into humanity, in Christ, humanity would have dissolved into nothingness and the subhumanity into which we were plunged in the ‘Fall.’ So it would take nothing less than the incorruptible God to become corruptible human, and recreate what it means for humans to be created in the image of God, as we are resurrected and recreated in the vicarious humanity of Christ; Christ being the original image of God by nature, and now we, by the faith of Christ inspired by the Holy Spirit, participate in and from his image (as ‘images of the image’) as partakers and participants in the divine nature. Here is how Weinandy masterfully develops this (Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2007), 34-6):

The profundity of this cannot be overstated. While there still remains room for some further development, in regard to Athanasius’s own development, what he does offer, as presented by Weinandy, is Christologically rich and soteriologically satisfying; at least it is to me.

I think what we can also see at work in Athanasius is the Irenean (i.e. Irenaeus) conception of recapitulation; except with Athanasius what we get is a more dogmatically (rather than narratively) construed picture of what the Incarnation implies about Jesus Christ and salvation; understanding that Athanasius’ context was even more directly in combat with some particularly pointed theological and Arian attacks that Irenaeus wasn’t pressed up against in the same way (although he had his own issues with the Gnostics et al.). Nevertheless, what Athanasius offers has some profound implications towards thinking about the role of a doctrine of creation (protology) and a doctrine of recreation (eschatology), and how both of those mutually implicate one another as they find their connective tissue and reality dead center in the person of Jesus Christ.

What we have in Athanasius is, in my view, as principially Christ centered as what we find in the theologies of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, respectively. It makes sense that Thomas Torrance when asked if he would identify as Barthian, would say that, no, he is an Athanasian, if anything. But I think in some important ways we can see Athanasius informing Barth’s theology just as directly as it does Torrance’s; and I think this is rather profound. It explains how and why the Reformed theology of Barth and Torrance (and us Evangelical Calvinists working after Barth and Torrance and Calvin) is so distinctive and in a different key than what we find in what I call classical Calvinism which is much more and almost exclusively Augustinian—and not just pure Augustinian, but mediated through a Thomist frame.

 

St. Athanasius and Thomas Torrance in Collusion on the Assumption of the Fallen Human Nature in Christ

As an evangelical in Bible College and Seminary (I still consider myself, broadly construed, an ‘evangelical’) I held to the impeccability view of Christ’s humanity. In other words, I believed that not only could Christ not sin*, but that the body he assumed in the man, Jesus of Nazareth, was likewise uniquely fitted for him such that he did not enter into the fallen human nature that the rest of humanity is born into in their mother’s womb. But then later, after Seminary (I graduated in 2003), as so many of you know by now, I came across the writings of Thomas Torrance; Torrance, as many of you also know holds to the Athanasian idea that Christ, in the incarnation, assumed a fallen human nature, just like the rest of humanity’s. Along with Nazianzen and Athanasius et al. Torrance maintained that unless Christ fully entered into our real and fallen human nature that real redemption, all the way down, could not take place. Torrance would be concerned, also, that if Christ didn’t enter the fallen human nature, in the assumptio carnis, that all we would be left with would be with something like an instrumentalist conception of the atonement. I.e. We would be left with a forensic understanding of salvation, necessarily so, since the death of Christ wouldn’t penetrate deep enough into the fabric (ontologically) of human nature to recreate it, but instead he would only be the ‘organ’ of God’s salvation to ‘pay the penalty’ of humanity’s sin (in particular the elect’s); a truly juridical and external type of venture.

Here is what Torrance has written in his New College lecture notes:

Now when we listen to the witness of holy scripture here we know we are faced with something we can never fully understand, but it is something that we must seek to understand as far as we can. One thing should be abundantly clear, that if Jesus Christ did not assume our fallen flesh, our fallen humanity, then our fallen humanity is untouched by his work — for ‘the unassumed is the unredeemed’, as Gregory Nazianzen put it. Patristic theology, especially as we see it expounded in the great Athanasius, makes a great deal of the fact that he who knew no sin became sin for us, exchanging his riches for our poverty, his perfection for our imperfection, his incorruption for our corruption, his eternal life for our mortality. Thus Christ took from Mary a corruptible and mortal body in order that he might take our sin, judge and condemn it in the flesh, and so assume our human nature as we have it in the fallen world that he might heal, sanctify and redeem it. In that teaching the Greek fathers were closely following the New Testament. If the Word of God did not really come into our fallen existence, if the Son of God did not actually come where we are, and join himself to us and range himself with us where we are in sin and under judgement, how could it be said that Christ really took our place, took our cause upon himself in order to redeem us?[1]

And here is what theologian Thomas Weinandy has to say about Athanasius’ view on the same loci (Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2007), 33-4):

It is easy to see the connection between the incarnation and salvation, in ontological terms, when we consider it from both Athanasius’ and Torrance’s theo-logic. It happens to be a theo-logic I affirm these days. Indeed, there are many objectors to this (Kevin Chiarot being the foremost) thinking; but it would be wrong-headed to think that there is not some seminal footing for this view from none other than the champion himself of Nicene Christology and Trinitarian theology, the theologian contra mundum, Athanasius.

It should also be kept in mind that this is precisely the point at which departure happens between Evangelical Calvinists and Classical Calvinists. Classical Calvinists frame their understanding of salvation, primarily, within forensic/juridical lenses; this flows well and even from their understanding of the Covenant of Works combined with the God of absolutum decretum (the God who relates to creation through absolute decrees), and a doctrine of unconditional election. Evangelical Calvinists follow Athanasius, Torrance, et al. in adopting this more ontological understanding of salvation wherein the primacy of Christ as the imago Dei is elevated to the point wherein salvation is understood as the realm where humanity is taken up in the assumption of God’s humanity in Christ, and we are recreated in Christ’s resurrected vicarious humanity for us (Romans 6–8); we are taken from living in subhumanity and corruptibility and brought to participate in and from the incorruptibility of God’s life in Christ, the life that is indestructible (Hebrews 6–7). We still see the forensic in the atonement, but we emphasize, with Barth, the idea that God in his election to be for us in Christ becomes the judged Judge in our stead and reconciles and elevates humanity to be partakers of the divine nature (by the grace of his life) in and through the recreated humanity of Jesus Christ who is our mediator.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation (DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 62.

*To be clear, I along with Athanasius and TF Torrance do not believe that Christ ever sinned, but immediately sanctified his humanity, by the power of the Holy Spirit, remaining the spotless Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the world. Such a sacrifice was required in order for actual salvation to inhere; which is of course why it took God in flesh, the double homoousion of the Son as God, and the Son as human in the singular person of Jesus Christ to accomplish such an impossible possibility.

The Pure and Utter Centrality of the Homoousion in the Theology of Thomas Torrance: God Become Man and What That Means for Us

The homoousion is the key piece of language the council of Chalcedon borrowed from the Greeks in order to put it in the service of grammarizing a way towards speaking of the reality of the eternal Son, Jesus Christ, as being exactly consubtantial with the Father (and Holy Spirit) in nature as Theos (God). It was also used dually to speak of the reality of the eternal Son as being consubstantial in nature with humanity; which resulted in the further language of hypostatic union. That’s my very rough entrée into introducing you all to the homoousion. The reason, in particular why I’m bringing this up is because I want to highlight something very important in regard to what serves as a touchstone for T.F. Torrance’s theological realism and hermeneutic; he places central weight upon the homoousion as the basis upon which humanity has touch with God and God with humanity—so not only is there an epistemological component to it, but antecedently and as a prius there is ontological import, for TFT, in emphasizing the significance for a truly Christ conditioned/centered reality. Whether that has to do with hermeneutics, a doctrine of creation/re-creation, the eschaton, or what have you.

I want you, the reader, to see how this works in Torrance’s theology, and in so doing I want you to see what stands behind my own approach to all things theological; it is in echo of Torrance. I want you, the reader to understand how important the homoousion is for my and Myk Habet’s understanding of what Evangelical Calvinism entails, and is, indeed, entailed by. Here is what Torrance writes about the homoousion, in brief:

As the epitomised expression of this truth, the homoousion is the ontological and epistemological linchpin of Christian theology. It gives expression to the truth with which everything hangs together, and without which everything ultimately falls apart. The decisive point for Christian theology, and not least for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, lies here, where we move from one level to another: from the basic evangelical and doxological level to the theological level, and from that level to the high theological level of the ontological relations in God.[1] In that movement a radical shift in the basic fabric of theological thought takes place along with a reconstruction in the foundations of our prior knowledge. This is evident not least in the fact that in formulating the homoousion of Christ in connection with both his creative and redemptive activity, Nicene theology laid the axe to the epistemological dualism latent in Greek philosophy and religion that threatened the very heart of the Gospel; and as such it gave powerful expression to the indissoluble connection in Act and Being between the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity, between οἰκονομία and θεολογία, which secured the Church in its belief that in the Lord Jesus Christ and his Gospel they had to do directly with the ultimate Presence and downright Reality of God himself. Jesus Christ does for us and to us, and what the Holy Spirit does in us, is what God himself does for us, to us and in us.[2]

There are many things that could be noted in regard to the various high points evinced in this one paragraph from Torrance. But let me just highlight a couple: 1) We see how Torrance believes (and I’m with’m) the Hellenic language of homoousion was taken and ‘reminted’ (that’s his language from just prior to this paragraph) under the pressure and reality of the Revelation of God in Christ. He believes that the way the early church was able to appropriate this language was in a way that re-texted said language to the point that it became a brand new, even “Christianized” grammar that was made fitting for the church’s edification precisely because of the power of God in Christ as the coordinating reality of all things; even language. 2) The homoousion for Torrance, as we already noted, has both ontological and epistemological import for us because it shows how the Godward movement towards us is in intimate, even perichoretic relation to the humanity he assumed, and how the Humanward is in intimate relation with Godself which is the ground of the singular person, Jesus Christ. It is as this hypostatic union inhered in Jesus by the creative power of the Holy Spirit that the bridge between God and humanity/humanity and God was accomplished. It is this reality, the personalizing personal reality of God in Christ, that as we participate in and from it, from Him, that we now have access to the holy of holies of God’s life; we have both the ontic (being) and epistemic (knowing) capacities necessary to actually have access to God’s life (Eph. 1.18-9)—the Holy Trinity, mysterium Trinitatis!

 

[1] Torrance has what he calls a stratified knowledge of God, that’s what he’s referring to here in regard to the ‘levels’. I’ve hyperlinked to a brief quote from Ben Myers who gives a nice summary of what this is all about in Torrance’s theology.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 95.

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

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

The Enigma of Sin’s Origin

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Elevation-Line in Theology: The Primacy of God in Incarnation and His Reality in ‘EC’ Theology

I have written on the primacy of Christ and ‘elevation-line’ theology before (a theology articulated in the medieval period by John Duns Scotus), here at the blog; but I thought I would revisit it (it has come up in my TF Torrance readings). The issue under consideration has a basic premise, but comes, of course, with complex and profound elucidation. That said, I don’t think it’s a speculative or abstract type of theological consideration. The basic premise of so called ‘elevation-line’ theology is: That Jesus Christ would have incarnated for humanity with or without the fall. One reason for orthodoxjesusthis view is that it emphasizes the idea that the telos or purpose for creation, from the beginning, was always to “elevate” humanity into the kind of relationship, by grace, that the Son has always had with the Father (what we see Jesus speaking to the Father about in his so called ‘high priestly prayer’ in John 17). But beyond this it avoids making the incarnation of God contingent upon sin, and meeting the conditions set out by sin (this for me, theologically, is quite significant). Contrary to this, and what would be the majority report in the Western church (by the way elevation-line theology is also a Western development), there is also what has been called ‘restitution-line’ theology (articulated foremost, during the medieval period by Thomas Aquinas). Myk Habets explains what these positions entail quite clearly when he writes:

Two views on the primacy of Christ dominate the discussion within medieval theology, those of the Franciscans, led by John Duns Scotus, and those of the Dominicans, led by Thomas Aquinas. According to the first view humanity was created for glory, and sin is merely an episode along the way. The incarnation would have occurred irrespective of the fall since humanity’s ultimate destiny is participation in the being of God and the incarnation guarantees that this will be realized. This Franciscan position is known as the Scotistic thesis. It is what one scholar terms ‘elevation-line’ theology which sees the incarnation as the way to the elevation or consummation of creation. The second major view considers the deliverance of creation as secondary to the question of sin. This is the Dominican position known as the Thomistic thesis. It may be characterised as a ‘restitution-line’ theology, in which the incarnation occurred solely as a remedy for humanity’s sin, with the restitution of creation as a corollary. Both ‘school’s’ of thought deserve some articulation before examining some recent contributions to the issue.[1]

David Fergusson writes of the development of elevation-theology this way:

The notion of ‘wisdom’ provides further evidence of the integration of creation and salvation in the Old Testament. As the creative agency of God, wisdom is celebrated in the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and some of the deutero-canonical works. In some places, such as Proverbs 8, wisdom is personified as a divine agent. The divine wisdom by which the world is created is also apparent in the regularity of nature, the divine law, and human affairs. This notion of ‘wisdom’ is later fused with the Greek concept of ‘Logos’ and becomes vital for expressing the linking of creation and Christology in the New Testament. In the prologue to John’s Gospel the Word (Logos) of God is the one by whom and through whom the world is created. This Word which is made present to Israel becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ. In this cosmic Christology, the significance of Jesus is understood with respect to the origin and purpose of the created order. Already in Paul’s writing and elsewhere in the New Testament epistles, we find similar cosmic themes (e.g. 1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:15-20, Heb. 1:1-4). By describing creation as Christ-centred, these passages offer two related trajectories of thought. First, the origin and final purpose of the cosmos is disclosed with the coming of Christ into the world and his resurrection from the dead. Second, the significance of Christ is maximally understood reference to his creative and redeeming power throughout the created universe. Writers at different periods in the history of the church would later use this cosmic Christology to describe the appearance of the incarnate Christ as the crowning moment of history. No longer understood merely as an emergency measure to counteract the effects of sin and evil, the incarnation was the fulfillment of an eternal purpose. The world was made so that Christ might be born. This is captured in Karl Barth’s dictum that creation is ‘the external basis of the covenant’ (Barth 1958: 94).[2]

All of this type of thinking, first generated by Duns Scotus, and then its counterpoint provided by Aquinas came together for Myk in his essay, and then finally resulted in a thesis that Myk and I co-wrote in our first evangelical Calvinist book: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church. Here is thesis 8 of 15 from our book, let me share this with you all, it will help to illustrate how a doctrine of the primacy of Christ (over and for creation), a supralapsarian doctrine of election, and so called elevation-line theology all mutually implicate and inform each other as aspects of the whole reality located in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and how that frames salvation and situates that within a doctrine of God, Christ, protology, covenant, creation, recreation, and eschatology. Here is our thesis 8:

Thesis Eight

Evangelical Calvinism endorses a supralapsarian Christology which emphasizes the doctrine of the primacy of Christ.

As a direct result of thesis 5 and its concomitant doctrine of God, Evangelical Calvinists subscribe to a broadly conceived supralapsarian Christology along the lines of that famously propounded by John Duns Scotus. That is to say that, Evangelical Calvinists embrace the idea that who God is for us in Christ is grounded in the pre-temporal reality of his choice to be for us apart from and prior to the “Fall” or even the creation itself. This, theologically coheres with the Evangelical Calvinist conception of God’s life being shaped by who he is as love, and thus both chronologically and logically places his love and his self-determining freedom as the primary mode of God’s life; and thus the basis from which he acts, even in wrath. As such an Evangelical Calvinist may confidently assert that: “There is no wrath of God that is not first experienced as the love of God for you.”[3]

As one of us has argued elsewhere: “The sine qua non of the Scotistic thesis is that the predestination of Christ took place in an instant which was logically prior to the prevision of sin as absolutum futurum. That is, the existence of Christ was not contingent on the fall as foreseen through the scientia visionis.”[4] It is through this matrix that Evangelical Calvinists can be said to hold to a “supralapsarian Christology,” that is that we believe in God’s primacy over all of creation; and thus his choice to be for us is in Christ is not contingent upon sin, but instead it is the result of the overflow of who he is as the God for the other—God is Love!

The election of the eternal Son for us that occurs pre-temporally becomes temporally externalized in the Incarnation of Christ, and ultimately finds its resounding crescendo in being actualized through the cross-work of Christ, exemplifying that God’s life of over-flowing love is in fact cruciform in shape as it is revealed within the conditions of a post-lapsarian world.

In salvation God accomplishes multiple things but perhaps four may be pointed out here: 1) God’s glory is revealed; 2) God’s salvation is accomplished, 3) God’s judgment is made manifest, and 4) God’s damnation of the sinner outside of Christ is realized. All four of these components find their extrinsic locus in the person of Christ as the primary exemplar and mediator of God’s life for humanity. Each of these—God’s glory, salvation, judgment, and damnation—take on significance as Jesus’ God-shaped humanity brings God and humans together in himself. The Father is glorified through the Son’s loving submission as the scapegoat, sacrifice, and representative for fallen humanity; and through this ultimate act of the obedient love of the Son, the Father brings reconciliation (salvation) to humanity as Christ enters into the wilderness of humanity’s sin, bears the weight of that sin in his “being” for us; and thus suffers the tragic damnation that rightfully belonged to sinful humanity. Through this mediation of life for life (substitution), Christ not only pays the penalty for sin; but as a corollary with who he is as love, he reconciles humanity’s non-being with his resurrected being of life and thus brought God and humanity together in a spiritual union such that reconciled and adopted sinners may now experience the love of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ as our Abba, our Father, and our worship, by the Holy Spirit, may be acceptable to God.

Supralapsarian Christology, correctly understood, does not reflect an Amyraldian, or a hypothetical universalism; but rather an actualized universal atonement which recreates humanity through Christ’s humanity, and provides salvation for all who will believe through Spirit generated, Christic formed faith. A purview that genuinely can claim to be “Christ-conditioned.”[5] [6]

As if this wasn’t enough, I wanted to illustrate further how this functions in TF Torrance’s own thinking and theology (this so called ‘elevation-line’ theology). Torrance writes: “… But this very condescension of God, in which he humbled himself to enter into our lowly creaturely and fallen existence, means also the elevation  of our creaturely existence, by the very fact of God’s will to unite himself to it and to bring the creature into coexistence with himself. Thus his very act of becoming man is itself an act of reconciliation.”[7] He writes further in this vein:

But further, the assumptio carnis means also that God has joined himself to us in our estranged human life in order to sanctify it, to gather it into union with his own holy life and so lift it up above and beyond all the downward drag of sin and decay, and that he already does simply by being one with man in all things. Thus the act of becoming incarnate is itself the sanctification of our human life in Jesus Christ, an elevating and fulfilling of it that far surpasses creation; it is a raising up of men and women to stand and have their being in the very life of God, but that raising up of man is achieved through his unutterable atoning self-humiliation and condescension.[8]

I share this from Torrance in order for the reader to see where some of the inspiration has come from for me and Myk as evangelical Calvinists, and how elevation theology and the Scotist thesis, at this level anyway, is present in Torrance’s writings and thought.

Conclusion

This turned into a long post, but there is a lot of rich stuff to share in this regard. I hope this all gives you, the reader, further insight into where evangelical Calvinism is coming from. What should stand out for you is how indeed this differentiates our approach from “classical” renditions of Calvinism. Classical, so called, iterations of Calvinism work from the Thomist or as Myk identifies it for us, ‘restitution-line’ theology; i.e. the primary reason for the incarnation and God become man was to take care of sin and pay its penalty (so we end up with a more forensic and juridical emphasis). Us evangelical Calvinists follow the Scotist thesis (at least at this level of things), which makes for an altogether different emphasis in the way we understand everything, including salvation. We see salvation in ontic terms, in the terms we see presupposed upon by TF Torrance in the quotes I shared from him; and also as those get addressed in the sharing of our thesis 8. This ontological focus moves us away from juridical or forensic frames when we think about anthropology, soteriologly, and the point of creation in total. Along with David Fergusson, as evangelical Calvinists who affirm the elevation-line, we can say: “The world was made so that Christ might be born.”[9]

For evangelical Calvinists Jesus is primary over all of creation, through and through. One of our favorite passages of Scripture (as it was for Scotus himself) comes from the Apostle Paul’s Colossian correspondence:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.[10]

 

[1] Myk Habets, “On Getting First Things First,” 344-45.

[2] David Fergusson, Chapter 4: Creation, 76-7 in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance.

[3] This idea is forcefully presented by Torrance in a sermon “The Trinity of Love,” when he defines the love of God according to 2 Corinthians 13:14 as a holy, pure, true, and only love, and as such: “If God in His love gives Himself to me, His love would burn up my self-love; His purity would attack my impurity; His truth would slay my falsehood and hypocrisy. The love of God would be my judgment. God’s love is wrath against all self-love. God’s love is a consuming fire against all that is unloving and selfish and sinful,” Torrance, When Christ Comes, 187. (this footnote is the original one made in our EC book coordinate with thesis 8)

[4] Habets, “On Getting First Things First,” 349. (this footnote is the original one made in our EC book coordinate with thesis 8)

[5] See Purves, chapter 5, and Goroncy, chapter 10. (this footnote is the original one made in our EC book coordinate with thesis 8)

[6] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 437-39.

[7] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 65.

[8] Ibid., 66.

[9] Fergusson, “Creation,” 77.

[10] Colossians 1.15-20, ESV.

God’s Love is the Incarnation: Why Christians Celebrate this Season

It is so easy to get caught up in the fast paced materialistic trappings of pagan/secular Christmas rituals; it is all around. But as Christians we are content with a slower pace, a redemptive rhythm that is contingent not upon might, nor marybabypower, but upon the quiet moving of the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ. As Christians during this season, in a heightened way, we focus our attention on what God in Christ has done; how he has broken into these flesh and blood bodies we inhabit, and brought God and humanity together in the hypostatic union of his singular life in the eternal Logos, the Christ. In other words, during this Christmas season, in intensive ways, Christians are essentially celebrating God’s big grace for us as he has forever reached into our lives, and brought us into his Triune life of ineffable proportion. As Christians, this season, we are rejoicing in the reality that we have come to embrace, that apart from God’s incarnation in Christ we would be like wandering stars for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever; we are rejoicing because we have come to rest in the fact that God is love—the incarnation says so. As Christians this Christmas we are reposing in the reality that the incarnation signals the death of all religions that attempt to reach up to God; that the incarnation demonstrates the once and for all reality that only God could bridge such a gap; that without God in Christ humanity would remain forever grasping at the unattainable. We are full of hope this Christmas season as we rest in the unshakable reality that the incarnation of God has signaled to the world; a world moving so fast it can’t stop long enough to contemplate such depths. But Christians aren’t of this world, not this Christmas season, or any season; we are of a different order, the order that recognizes what God did for humanity in the incarnation, what humanity of its own resource could never even imagine doing for itself. Thomas Torrance articulates the depth dimension of what we are celebrating this Christmas, this way:

If this mystery, the unity of God and man in Jesus Christ is God’s own act, then, ‘what God has joined together, let not man put asunder’. The very fact that it takes God almighty – and even he at such desperate cost – to join God and man in Jesus Christ, tells us in unmistakable language that this is not what we can do. We cannot join God and man together. We are unable to bridge the gap between God and man, nor can we ascend up to heaven and bring God down from there. But it is here face to face with the incarnation in space and time, the union of God and humanity in Christ, that we learn properly for the first time. Only when we see this union actualised in Jesus Christ do we know that we could never join man and God together.

Here is an act of pure grace, the stupendous and absolutely free act of God almighty, and it carries with it the irresistible inference that what God has done here for us, we cannot do for ourselves. In fact the incarnation tells us plainly that all our efforts  to go from humanity to God are useless and false – all our efforts to join man to God are judged and disqualified, and by this fait accompli in Jesus Christ they are completely set aside and revealed to be utterly wrong. God has done the impossible, the incredible thing in Jesus Christ, but it is only now that he has done it that we see how utterly impossible it actually is, impossible for us to accomplish from the side of humanity.[1]

This Christmas season we Christians are celebrating what God has done for us in Jesus Christ by bringing God and humanity together in the singular person, Jesus Christ. There is so much depth and reality to this season on the Christian calendar; one that this fast paced world runs right by. Just as baby Jesus was born in a dusty little stable, unbeknownst to the mighty Roman Empire all around; so too, today, that reality remains unchanged. People, sadly, don’t realize just how fully charged this world is with the glory of God come in the babe and finally the man from Nazareth.

The incarnation, and our celebration of it as Christians is a multifaceted thing; one tinged with the soberness of all that has been accomplished for us in Christ, but also one laced with the reality that people all around remain aloof to this truly unparalleled reality of God become man; not in abstraction, but for them, for us. This Christmas season, if nothing else, is really about the evangel that God loved us first that we might love him. amen.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 9-10.

Thank God for Jesus! Corrupted Interpreters that We Are

Karl Barth saw quite clearly, as a modern theologian himself, the hermeneutical problem that plagues each and every one of us. He had the 18th and 19th century theologians in mind when he penned the following, but the critique is applicable to all humans. I.e. there is not one period in the history of the church, or its intellectual history that has greater elevation than any other; I’m not spectaclesreally sure this has dawned on many of us. In my evangelical circles, particularly among the scholarly class there is a move back to Post Reformed orthodox theology as if it is the answer to what ails evangelicalism and the 21st century Protestantism in North America, and abroad. I’m not contending that there aren’t resourceful riches to be had from within that period of Protestantism, but again, it is theology done by broken human thinkers, just as much so as is present within the 18th and 19th centuries of the church. Here is what Barth writes in this regard:

We have to describe as a philosophy the systematized commonsense with which at first the rationalists of the 18th century thought they could read and understand the Bible, and later, corrected by Kant, the school of A. Ristchl, which was supposed to be averse to every type of speculation and metaphysics. It is all very well to renounce the Plationism of the Greek fathers, but if that means that we throw ourselves all the more unconditionally into the arms of the positivists and agnostics of the 19th century, we have no right to look for the mote in the eye of the ancient fathers, as though on their side there is a sheer hellenisation of the Gospel, and on ours a sheer honest exegetical sense for facts. There has never yet been an expositor who has allowed only Scripture alone to speak.[1]

The implications of this are deep and wide. What this should signal for all of us is that we need to have a sense of utter humility before the Word of God, and allow it, first and foremost, to do its interpretive work over and on us.

Barth is not saying we can’t know anything, just the opposite. Instead he is alerting us to the reality that what we can know of God, according to the Bible, is fully contingent upon God’s Word, and His confrontation and contradiction of our disordered faculties therefrom. In other words, we need to be inserted into the life of God Himself (by the grace of adoption) if we ever hope to have any knowledge of Him or even ourselves. Thank God for Jesus!

[1] Karl Barth, CD I/2, 728 cited by Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 185.