Leithart and Torrance on the Primordiality of the Virgin Conception as New Humanity

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

   “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). -Matthew 1:21-23

Peter Leithart offers some important insight on the significance of the Virgin Birth of the Messiah, Jesus. It has nothing to do with sinlessness, per se; and everything to do with something deeper than that: with what it means to be genuinely human before God. This impacts our sinful statuses, indeed, but the frame, exegetically understood, isn’t about sinlessness; the frame goes to an antecedent reality, and what it means to be genuinely human before God. This is the significance of the incarnation of God in the womb of Mary: it is only the sort of work that the Creator God, who is Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit, can accomplish.

Matthew’s point is different. He says nothing about Jesus’ sinlessness here. The emphasis is on Jesus as the Deliverer from sin, not on Jesus’ own freedom from sin. This episode is framed as part of a creation story. Like 1:1, verse 18 uses the word “genesis” (γένεσις, translated “birth”). In this creation context, the references to the Holy Spirit (vv. 18, 20) allude back to Genesis 1:2. Mary is the “earth” over which the heavenly Spirit hovers to form a new creation. Joseph rising from sleep to take his wife reminds us of Adam in the garden (Genesis 2:18-25), taking Mary as his wife just as Adam took the newly created Eve as his wife.

This virgin birth is thus a sign of God’s new initiative, of God’s new creation, which begins with the creation of the new Man, Jesus. Our salvation does not come—it cannot come—from inside humanity. We are not capable of saving ourselves. God has to come in from the outside if we are going to be saved. We cannot repair the damage of sin or construct a new creation by our own initiative, by our own reproduction, by our own expertise or power. The virgin birth passes a judgment on all human efforts at self-salvation, all our prideful pretense that we can put the world right through political or technological or educational means. If the world is going to be put to right, God must enter the world from the outside, because everything that comes from within humanity is corrupted and weak.

We can also note Isaiah’s and Matthew’s use of the name Immanuel, “God with us.” The virgin birth means that Jesus is God with us, God in human flesh, God who has taken on human nature to be with His people and to save us. The virgin birth thus tells us something about the nature of Christ. It is not as if Joesph and Mary had a son who later became the Son of God. It is not as if there as a pre-existing human being who was later infused with Godness. Rather, the virgin conception and birth shows that Jesus only exists as the humanity of the Son of God. There is not even a single moment when the humanity of Jesus exists by itself. It is always, from the moment of conception, the humanity of the Son of God. It is God’s humanity. And this means that Jesus really is God-with-us, God near us, God entered into human nature, into human history, in the fullest possible sense. There is no distance between God and Jesus, not ever for a single second. Donald Macleod has written, “God was involved in a peculiarly direct and intimate way in the creation of his humanity. To deny the virgin birth and introduce instead human sexual activity is to distance God unacceptably from the production of the Holy One.” To touch the humanity of Jesus is to touch the humanity of God. To see and hear Jesus is to see and hear God in human flesh. Because of the Virgin Conception and Birth, Jesus truly is, in the most direct way possible, both God and with us.1

T.F. Torrance fills out the richness that Leithart has identified for us, and in concert with that; but with an application of the analogy of the virgin birth to the possibility for ‘saving faith,’ Torrance writes,

By that we are guided to think and given to understand something of our own salvation and recreation. As in the annunciation of the word to Mary, Christ the Word himself became flesh, so in the enunciation of the gospel, we surrender in like manner to Christ the Word now made flesh, and there takes place in us the birth of Jesus, or rather, we are in a remarkable way given to share through grace in his birth and to share in the new creation in him. That is the Christian message – the Christmas message. It is not of our self-will or free-will that we are saved and born anew from above. ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.’ Here there is a ‘become’ dependent on the ‘become’ of ‘the Word become flesh’, grounded in it and derivative from it. What happened once and for all, in utter uniqueness in Jesus Christ, happens in every instance of rebirth into Christ, when Christ enters into our hearts and recreates us. Just as he was born from above of the Holy Spirit, so we are born from above of the Holy Spirit through sharing in his birth. Just as in the birth of Jesus there was no preceding action on our part, or human co-operation, such as the co-operation between a human father and a human mother, just as there was no prior human activity there, so in our salvation and in our knowledge of God there is no a priori, no human presupposition, no Pelagian, semi-Pelagian or synergistic activity.2

Thematically, both Torrance and Leithart see the primordiality of the virgin birth as the event sui generis; of the sort that only an otherworldly reality, extra nos, could conceive. In order for salvation to actualistically obtain for all of humanity, the particular humanity of God graciously invaded the crust of the broken human body and offered His primal life, the Bread of Life for the world, in the humble womb of a backwater country-girl named, Mary. By this move of God, this ‘hovering,’ humanity came to be humanity once again, the moment the Spirit conceived the humanity of the Son out of the ‘seed of the woman.’ He inspired this ‘seed,’ the woman’s seed, the day that He took woman from the rib of the first Adam, in preparation for the parousia of the second and Greater Adam for whom the world was created. It is from the miracle, the protological first, and the eschatological second, that the Spirit of God brought reconciliation between God and humanity, as that elected reality was given actual/temporal flesh in the Virgin Conception. Magnificant 

 

1 Peter J. Leithart, Matthew Through New Eyes: Volume One: Jesus as Israel (Louisiana, Monroe: Athanasius Press, 2017), loc. 801, 810, 817 kindle.

2 Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 100-02.

 

TF Torrance’s Copy-and-Paste of Barth’s Doctrine of Christ Concentrated Election

I have had the following quote from Thomas Torrance up at the blog (in the sidebar) since at least 2009. It reads as follows: 

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.1 

It is rich with ‘Chalcedonian pattern,’ and the homoousial reality of the eternal Logos, the Son of the Father become human pro nobis. Karl Barth writes something very similar—and so my guess is that he inspired TFT’s above statement—in regard to the election of God in Christ for the world: 

§ 35

THE ELECTION OF THE INDIVIDUAL 

The man who is isolated over against God is as such rejected by God. But to be this man can only be by the godless man’s own choice. The witness of the community of God to every individual man consists in this: that this choice of the godless man is void; that he belongs eternally to Jesus Christ and therefore is not rejected, but elected by God in Jesus Christ; that the rejection which he deserves on account of his perverse choice is borne and cancelled by Jesus Christ; and that he is appointed to eternal life with God on the basis of the righteous, divine decision. The promise of his election determines that as a member of the community he himself shall be a bearer of its witness to the whole world. And the revelation of his rejection can only determine him to believe in Jesus Christ as the One by whom it has been borne and cancelled.2 

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.”  

These two statements from these two men, respectively, is what has drawn me to their theologies like none other. In the past I was awash, as many still are, in the false binaries on offer, in regard to the classical doctrines of election and reprobation. I always knew there was something wrong with them, but really had no alternatives to satisfy my deepest christological inclinations and disposition. That is until I came across both Barth and Torrance, and the way they took the Chalcedonian Christology, and brought it to its rightful conclusion. These theologians, the both (Barth as the forerunner, following his friend Pierre Maury), constructively and canonically tied up the loose, and negative ends that Chalcedon leftover. Barth and Torrance, respectively, go beyond the conciliar theology, but they don’t leave it behind. Instead, in my view, they achieve a pro-level focus on the esse of what Chalcedon (among the other important Christological councils around that time) theology had only left in inchoate form.  

The focus of a genuinely framed Christian theology is what we see in nuce in both of these statements. To know God, and to know ourselves before God (coram Deo) is to first know Christ by the Spirit. It is in this knowing that we come to have capacity and orientation to know the God who alone has freely chosen to reveal Himself to, for, and in us in the centraldogma of His life with us in, Jesus Christ. This is a unilateral move of God; ie His being in becoming in such a way that ‘He who knew no sin, became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.’ This becoming has never been contingent on us in abstraction from God for us. This being has become for us prior to us, but not without us; since, as Barth emphasizes: God freely determined to not be God without us, but with us Immanuel.  

This is the Evangel, the kerygmatic reality that is so precisely encapsulated by both Barth and TFT in the aforementioned statements. If pastors, theologians, and Christian witnesses in general could come to grasp the nut of these statements the Christian Church, and world, would be the better for it. As we observe in the above Barth and TFT reduce deep dimensional theology in a way that doesn’t leave us in the lurch of a reductionism. Instead, they both, respectively, present the Gospel reality—and its sum in the ‘election of God’—in a way that respects all of the creedal theology of the ecumenical past, while emphasizing the canonical and Scriptural reality that sees Jesus as the center of everything (cf. John 5:39). They think from the Protestant ‘Scripture Principle,’ but do so in ways that are church catholic and deeply Christologically conditioned.  

 

1 T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §35 The Doctrine of God: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 111.

Ecce Homo, Jesus is the Man! He was First Human for Us that We Might Be Human in Him

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the lawof the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. —Psalm 1.1-2

I once read a biblical exegete, H. A. Ironside, ironically, identify ‘the man’ in Psalm 1 to be none other than, Jesus Christ. This interpretive tradition goes way back into theological history. Some might think this is just Barth, or Torrance, or maybe some Germans in the modern period, like Emil Brunner or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who emphasized the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; the Son of Man; the Son of David. But we see these emphases found in Calvin, Luther, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, and Nicene theology in general. Here is a succinct statement on this interpretive tradition provided by a German, and teacher of mine, named, Helmut Thielicke:

This character of the imago Dei as an alienum, something alien, is supremely brought out by the fact that as a proprium, as a true ontic possession, an attribute in the strict sense, it is ascribed solely and exclusively to Jesus Christ. It is is ascribed to him as a proprium, not merely in the sense that in him alone it has remained intact, but above all in the sense that it is present in him. In the absolute sense Jesus Christ is the only man. More precisely, he is the only man who fulfills humanity; he does not possess humanity merely in the negative mode, as an unrealized possibility. We can say this, of course, only if we at once add the safeguard that “humanity” cannot here be understood as an a priori concept expressing a knowledge of man enjoyed prior to and apart from Jesus Christ. If it were so understood, then Jesus Christ would be understood as merely fulfilling, or having to fulfill, an idea of humanity deriving from our own sovereignly creative consciousness. Our thinking must take the very opposite course. We must first learn from Christ and perceive in him—ecce homo!—what man is. We must first learn from his divine likeness wherein the divine likeness of man consists. For man’s divine likeness is fulfilled only in Christ, in our participating in his divine likeness.1

This changes everything! There is no humanity prior to Christ’s humanity. There is no imago Dei outwith the Deus Incarnandus, the eternal Son, to be incarnate for us. He was not created in our image, but we His! When you encounter theologies that attempt to think of an abstract humanity, as we find in classical Calvinisms and Arminianisms, as that is provided for by their respective doctrines of election and reprobation, you ought to run. Jesus, the elect of God for us, the Anointed One, He is the Man, Christ Jesus, the mediator between God and humanity in his hypostatic unioned person. This is in fact, the Word of the Lord; in flesh and blood.

Niceno-Predestination: God’s Pre-destination for us in Jesus Christ

If Christians knew Nicene theology, they could avoid the oft combatant atmosphere that typifies much of Western (and especially popular) theological discourse. When it comes to the locus of predestination / election-reprobation the divisiveness amplifies to an all-out battle cry. Because Christians, in the main, don’t realize that they can (and ought to) think all things from the grammar developed at the Niceno-Constantinopolitano-Chalcedony ecumenical Church councils, namely, the homoousios, the idea that the Son enfleshed in Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully human in His singular person, they devolve into an abstract and discursive mode of theological (or atheological) reasoning. When this mode of ‘theological reasoning’ is applied to the question of predestination we end up with a bi-polar malaise that results in something like the “Calvinists V the Arminians.” In other words, when people come to think that their only alternative for thinking about the complex of predestination is to defer to the philosophers, said thinkers end up thinking abstractly about God’s election (or not) of particular individual people. This is partly because the philosophers’ intellectual ambit is limited by their flatlander experience of the cosmos; that is, the philosopher, no matter how genius, can never gain the God-view vista required for accessing a reality that is purely grounded in Deus revelatus (God revealed). And so, the Christians operating out of this intellectual impoverishment end up thinking about an absolutely heavenly reality, grounded in God’s inner-triune-life, from non-heavenly categories. As such they don’t think of humanity from God’s pre-destined and elect humanity for them in Jesus Christ.

Karl Barth summarizes what I take to be the theo-logical outcome of taking Nicene theology to its reductive conclusion with reference to a doctrine of predestination:

The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom. It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because He is both the electing God and the elected man in One. It is part of the doctrine of God because originally God’s election of man is a predestination not merely of man but of Himself. Its function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God.1

For Barth, and for the implications of Nicene theology, when we think of predestination, the referent isn’t you and me, at a first order level; the referent is God’s life for us, as He freely elects our humanity for Himself in the Son. In this sense, a doctrine of predestination is radically re-oriented, such that the battle of “who is elect,” as if individual people were under consideration, is taken off the table; full stop. This is not to say that individual people aren’t entailed by God’s pre-destinating of Himself to be for us (pro nobis); indeed, it is to say, alternatively, that all of humanity has been invited to the ‘banqueting table of God.’ It is to say that all of humanity has a concrete place in the Kingdom of God in Christ just because God’s Kingdom is grounded in its lively center in Jesus Christ; who just so happens to be garbed with our humanity. The question remains open though, will a person repent and say yes from Christ’s Yes and amen for them, or not? In other words, a Nicene informed doctrine of predestination says that all of humanity is already elected for God, because God has already elected Himself for them in Jesus Christ.

The ‘classical’ retort to this, the one funded by a heavy-handed philosophical account, attended by its usual Aristotelian theory of causation and substance, might be that the Nicene account I am describing results in an undercut of God’s sovereignty; and thus, a notion of Divine double-jeopardy is injected into the mix. They might say this because they operate with what Barth calls the decretum absolutum (absolute decree) logic of what Thomas Torrance calls logico-causal necessitarian determinism. This is the idea that God has baked certain necessary features of causation, such as His primary and then secondary causation into the created order, which requires that certain outcomes obtain one way or the other per God’s unrevealed and arbitrary decree. On this account, this is all to make sure that God remains Sovereign, which entails His eternality, impassibility, immutability, and other characteristics.

When such thinking encounters my type of thinking on predestination it simply cannot countenance the idea that an individual human agent might have the means to “thwart” God’s predetermined predestination of all things. But of course, if this theory of causation is rejected from the get-go, as it should be, then that sort of dilemma never obtains. I clearly reject the decretum absolutum logic, and instead think from the filial-logic that funds the orthodox theology developed in the Nicene advancements.

Conclusion

A doctrine of Predestination ought to be thought from the consubstantial natures (both Divine and human) of the Theoanthropos Godman, Jesus Christ. If this is done predestination will not be thought of from an abstract center in ourselves, but instead from the concrete center of God’s free life for us in Jesus Christ. Pre-destination’s referent will be understood to be God, at a first order level, and our relationship to Him, as human beings, will only be thought from within the tremendum of the gracious movement of God for us, and us for God, as that is actualized in the One Man, Jesus Christ. This is the genuinely Christian confessional understanding of a doctrine of predestination. If you check it against Holy Scripture, as you always should—especially as good Protestant Christians—you will find that not only does the Christological and Trinitarian grammar, developed in the Nicene theology, coheres with the Scriptural witness, but that when that is applied to our current doctrine of predestination (and any other doctrine worth its Christian salt), that in corollary fashion, it also coheres with the biblical categories.

At the end: Jesus is God’s predestination for the world. This is the revelational doctrine of pre-destination. If this is accepted the typical theatrics that surrounds this doctrine dissipate into the inferno of God’s white-hot love for the world. We can get back to focusing on Jesus rather than ourselves this way. Oh, what a thought!

 

1 Barth, CD II/2:1. 

A Reflection on Colossians 2:20: ‘As if you were still alive in the world’

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. —Colossians 2.20-23 

I have shared the whole pericope, but I want to focus on verse 20. In particular, I want to reflect (so this isn’t proper exegesis) on this clause: “as if you were still alive in the world . . . .” I have literally read Colossians more than a thousand times over the last twenty-six years, and yet as I quickly read it last time this clause stood out to me in deep ways. The thing I like so much about the epistle to the Colossians is its eschatological and creational motifs, and how the Apostle Paul (by the Spirit) masterfully draws those motifs in and from Jesus Christ. What is striking to me about this clause is the conditional ‘as if.’ Because of God’s disruptive grace for us, as that confronts us in the Logos ensarkos (the Word enfleshed), we have been brought into a whole new realm of concrete existence. Even as if we live in this worldthe world that is passing away like a shadow—we are no longer strangled by the bonds ‘this world’ order is.  

I think what strikes me so much about this is the primal idea regarding the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. It is the sui generis non-analogous nature of the whole event that causes me to fall prostrate on my face before God. It is the announcement from God alone in Christ that declares that I am no longer alive in this world; that I am a citizen of heaven, and as such I am no longer encumbered by the wiles of this evil age. The notion that I am genuinely free, just as our Triune God is eternally free in His inner-life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, causes me to place my hand over my mouth in awe-struck. Because of what Christ has done by freeing us from this evil age, and transferring us into the ‘Kingdom of the Son’s love,’ we are no longer citizens of this world system; the one that is travailing under a futility it cannot begin to grasp.  

I have an apocalyptic excitement about the reality that I am no longer ‘alive in the world’; that I am only alive in the world of the Kingdom whose foundations can never be shaken. The fact that as Christians we have been transferred to another Kingdom, of the sort that comes with God’s creatio ex nihilo power, says to me that I no longer need to fret and wane along with the rest of this world. In other words, I can have a genuine witness to the world, of which I am no longer alive in, because I am alive from another world whose foundations are the Lord Himself. This goes beyond ethereal platitudes; indeed, this is the concrete reality of all reality. And so, as Christians we walk by the vision of the world from whence we find our lives and orientation; our vision is the faith of Christ for us. In this world we can see from the eschatos of God’s life, who is Jesus Christ. We can see from a world that does not require insight from this world system. And because of this we can genuinely be witnesses to this world, the one we inhabit from day to day, because we see the grandeur of what in fact real life entails. This world, the one that has been triumphed over by the cross of Christ, needs to see the real world through those of us who are its ambassadors. I cannot think of a time in world history where this has been more urgent than today. Maranatha 

Christology is the via for My Theological Existence

Christology is the via for my theological existence. If the Spirit’s ministry is to point to Jesus; if Jesus thinks Holy Scripture is all about Him; if the very beginning of the Bible has Jesus (‘seed of the woman’) as the protagonist of the whole thing; then it is Christology for me all the way down. I see no other way for actually coming to know the living God, if in fact the Word enfleshed (Logos ensarkos) has come exclusively for that very purpose. If the Son, the One who has always already been in the womb of the Father for us (Deus incarnandus) is said to be God’s ἐξήγησις (‘exegesis’) for us, then who am I, little ole’ Bobby Grow, to impose any other strictures on that. As a Christian, as one who says that Jesus is Lord by the Spirit, I have already acknowledged that I take God at His Word; and His Word, is of course the Father’s Son; it is He who is the res, the reality of the hidden God made visible pro me/nobis. I am willing to be naïve, and take God at His Word; to participate in His second objectivity in His economy for me as that is given ad extra in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. My life knows no other orbit than the one that keeps me in the pull of God’s Son. If He is the ‘firstborn from the dead,’ the ‘firstfruits’ of God, then I am bound to His life as the origin of it all. If Jesus is the reason for all of creation, if ‘the earth was made so that Christ might be born’ (Fergusson), and if I’m part of that creation, my reason for being is grounded in Christ.

My point is simply this: there is no theological theology outwith the Christology of God for us in Jesus Christ. He is the fundamentum of every molecule and atom, even proton, even the invisible elements; as such, I am eternally at his behest. He is Lord, and I am not. I am at His gracious mercy; indeed, I’d rather be a doorkeeper at His pearly gates than a wandering star for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever. When a theologian pontificates about grace perfecting nature all I can think is: no, God in Christ disrupts nature to the point of putting it to death, and re-creating. This must be the warp and woof of my theological way, or I have no way; I am like a wandering star at that point.

Solo Christo 

‘My God, You Have Forsaken Me!’: Gregory of Nanzianzus, Karl Barth, and Psalm 22

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? -Psalm 22:1

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” -Matthew 27:46

περὶ δὲ τὴν ἐνάτην ὥραν ἀνεβόησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς φωνῇ μεγάλῃ λέγων, Ηλι ηλι λεμα σαβαχθανι; τοῦτ’ ἔστιν, Θεέ μου θεέ μου, ἱνατί με ἐγκατέλιπες; – ΚΑΤΑ ΜΑΘΘΑΙΟΝ 27:46

Here is how Gregory of Nazianzus or Gregory the Theologian (329 – 390 A.D.) understands this passage:

He who destroyed my curse was Himself called a curse for my sake (Gal. 3:13). He who takes away the world’s sin was Himself called sin (2 Cor. 5:21). He who took the place of the old Adam was called a new Adam (1 Cor. 15:45-47). Likewise, He makes my disobedience His own, as the Head of His whole body. For as long as I am sinful and rebellious, by my rejection of God and by my sinful passions, for just so long Christ Himself is called sinful on my account! But when He has brought all things into obedience to Himself, through their acceptance of Him and their own transformation, then His state of humble obedience to the Father will be over, as He brings me to God in a state of salvation…

Thus in carrying our salvation, Christ makes our condition His very own. This, I think, is how to understand the words, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). It wasn’t the Son, in His own person, whom the Father forsook. Nor was He forsaken by His own divinity, as some think, as if His divine nature were frightened of the cross, and fled from Him in His sufferings. After all, one forced the divine Son to be born on earth in the first place, or to be impaled on the cross! But as I said, Christ was, in Himself, representing us — and we were the ones who were forsaken and rejected, before He came to save us. But now, by the sufferings of Him who could not suffer, we have been reconciled to God and saved. Likewise, He makes our foolishness and our sins His own. This is why He says what we read in the Twenty-First Psalm. It’s very clear that the Psalm is speaking of Christ.1

In the first paragraph we see the theme of mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’), and doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ that motivated Karl Barth in his doctrine of election. He writes (as we have observed in a recent post):

The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself. He therefore takes upon Himself the rejection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participation in His own glory.2

This is an important aspect to emphasize, in a history of interpretation sense, with particular effort to demonstrate that Barth wasn’t making a novel claim in his doctrine of election; even if it was ‘novel’ in its juxtaposition with scholastic Reformed and modern readings.

But beyond that, and this is what I want to underscore most prominently in this post: we can see how someone as early as Nanzianzus was wrestling with the relationship between the two-natures in the singular person of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t defer to a Lutheran sort of communicato idiomatum, but instead operates with an almost Nestorian-like (which the Lutheran would charge Calvinists or the Reformed with latterly, relative to Nanzianzus) focus on the vicarious humanity doing the suffering [on the cross] whilst the ground of His person, in the eternal Logos, remains untouched. Here’s a nice summary of how the various traditions understand the ‘communication of properties’ (communicatio idiomatum), and how that implicates the Christ’s ‘forsakenness’ on the cross:

Roman Catholics and Lutherans hold their respective views based on their shared understanding of the communicatio idiomatum, the communication of properties or attributes of the two natures of Christ. For both traditions, the divine nature of Christ communicates (or shares) divine attributes such as omnipresence to His human nature; thus, Christ’s physical body can be in several locations at once.

Reformed theology rejects this view of the communication of attributes as violating historic, orthodox Christology. According to the Council of Chalcedon, the two natures of Christ are inseparably united in the one divine person of the Son of God without confusion, mixture, or change. The divine nature remains truly divine and the human nature remains truly human, each retaining its own attributes. This must be so. If Christ’s humanity acquires a divine attribute, Jesus is no longer truly human and cannot represent other human beings before God or atone for their sin.

For Reformed theology, the communicatio idiomatum means the attributes of each of Christ’s natures are communicated to the person of Christ. We can predicate what is true of each nature to Christ’s person. So, the person of Christ is omnipresent, but not according to His human nature. He is omnipresent according to His divine nature because only deity is omnipresent. Likewise, the person of Christ died on the cross, but Jesus experienced death according to His human nature, for the divine nature is not subject to death and decay.3

According to the above description, Gregory is simply being a good proto-Chalcedonian Christologian; that is prior to the convening of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. For the Chalcedonian, or more accurately, the Reformed perspective, the natures of Christ, both human and Divine, find their predication in and from the singular personalis of Jesus Christ. So, from this frame, Christ’s humiliation in the incarnation and atonement has grounding in the single person of the whole Christ, but within the whole Christ (think from a qualified Christus totus) it is possible, and necessary, to think in terms of the operations of both his Divine and human natures per those natures as defined by Christ’s person (so there is a dialectic afoot). This gets into the Reformed understanding of what has been called the extra Calvinisticum as well; but let us simply acknowledge that for the moment, and develop that later.

I think the Theologian’s take above is adequate, but requires further theological development; which my friend Darren Sumner does in his book titled, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of GodSumner offers a constructive, and yet Reformed retrieval of this important doctrine; in regard to thinking about the ‘forsakenness’ of Christ, from both Lutheran and Reformed trajectories. But of course, Darren does so, admirably, from within the Christological dialectic that Barth offers in his theology in general, and in his doctrine of election, in particular. Suffice it to say, what remains the major thrust is the significance of emphasizing how the natures of Christ are predicated within the person of Christ, and to think these things from there; even if that negates (or not) what some have called the Logos asarkos. 

Conclusion

I sort of got lost in the underbrush of the trees in my sketch of things here. But hopefully the reader can appreciate the complexities involved with thinking about how the sui generis reality of God become human in Jesus Christ ought to impact this discussion. What remains true, from my perspective, is that the Son of Man freely chose our forsakenness, so that we might ultimately participate in his exaltedness through His resurrected and re-created humanity (pro nobis). God surely ‘suffered’ in the incarnation and crucifixion, and yet His divinity remained divine; and this is the mystery of it all. God has humanity in Jesus Christ, and chose freely to forever be defined by that humanity for-our-sakes (Deus incarnandus). And yet, His choice to be defined by Christ’s elected humanity, for-our-sakes, is grounded first in who He eternally is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, God is who God has always already been, it is just that within His who-ness as God, because of this, He freely chose to become something ‘new,’ in the sense that enfleshment is distinct from God, but now eternally who God has chosen to be for us in Christ. It is within this remaining mystery that God suffered; and He did so, as Nanzianzus rightly underscores, as the Theanthropos, or as the God-man, who came to have capacity to suffer as a human insofar as God has humanity in Jesus Christ.

Does this solve things for you? Probably not in the way you would like, or the way I would like. But this is what happens when us plebeians are confronted by the Novum of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. I prefer to worship at the majestic reality of God’s forsakenness for us in Christ. But to do so with some understanding; which includes his exaltedness in the same breath. He is the God who makes the impossible possible, and it is because of this that we have been allowed to participate in the eternal life of the triune God; that is because He chose ‘to become us that we might become Him’—this is God’s Grace.

1 Gregory Nazianzus, The Early Church Fathersedited by Nick Needham (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2017), March 16th reading. Gregory refers to Psalm 21 rather than 22. That is because he was referring to the LXX or the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament that he would have had available at his time. The chapterification was off by one relative to our translations today. 

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

3 Ligonier Ministries, A Communication of Attributesaccessed 06-10-2021.

 

 

An Ontological-Relational Framing of the Bondage of the Will: The Vicarious Humanity of Christ as Antidote

I am not a classical Calvinist; by now most of you know what I mean when I say that. I am not a classical Arminian; indeed, I’m not Arminian at all. I am Athanasian Reformed (aka Evangelical Calvinist). I affirm something like total depravity; I prefer to call that homo incurvatus in se, like Martin Luther did. Either way, I believe all of humanity, at the fall, was plunged into a rupture with the triune God, such that humanity lost all capacity to be for or with God in any way. In other words, as some refer to this more popularly, in regard to salvific matters, I am a proponent of ‘total inability.’ This means that I reject the (‘Pelagian’) notion that humanity retains an abstract (from God) freewill that would allow humans, apart from a radical in-breaking of God’s Grace in Christ, to be for God and not fundamentally against Him. I maintain that all of humanity, along with Adam and Eve in the garden, fell into a ruptured relationship with the triune God, such that postlapsarian humanity inhabits a status that keeps them incurved upon themselves, motivated by a saucer of competing affections that never allows them to see God as anyone but themselves. One manifestation of this, among others, is that such humans will construct rationalist citadels of anthropological heft wherein their reason, incurved upon itself as it were, becomes the standard for all that is real (think cogito ergo sum, or tabula rasa). 

In light of that you might think that I must, then, rely on some notion, in an ordo salutis (order of salvation), of God’s ‘regenerating grace’ (ie grace as a quality) entering into the ‘elects’’ heart in order for that particular person to come to have capacity to finally see[k] God for who He really is in Christ. But I don’t endorse the model of substance metaphysics that funds that sort of theory of anthrosalvation. Instead, as you also know of me by now, I think from the largely After Barth tradition. Within this tradition we have figures such as Thomas Torrance, Dietrich Bonhoeffer et al. For Barth and Torrance, in particular, they are both in-formed by Athanasian categories, in particular, and Patristic, in general; among other (modern) influences. Even so, they operate from a complex when it comes to the particular issue of thinking about the so-called Bondage of the Will; they both affirm it, but from within an ontological/filial frame. For them the issue of rupture between God and humanity isn’t primarily juridical, instead it’s a relational matter. For them, in the fall, humanity’s being has lost its human being in the sense that it has been spliced out of God’s image (imago Dei) in Christ (cf. Col. 1.15). Because of this plunge into ‘sub-humanity,’ humans no longer have the capacity to be free for God; since God alone is genuinely free. You see, for the tradition I think from (which is the biblical one), human being only has being and orientation, insofar as it is in right relationship with the triune God. Outwith this relationship the ‘abstract human’ has no capacity to operate with any notion of primal freedom; of the sort that God alone possesses. In order for that seemingly impossible possibility to become a possibility, for my tradition (which is the biblical one), it requires that God does something for us; viz. that He ‘disrupts’ the state of affairs an abstract humanity finds itself in, and from this act, humanity comes to have an objective ground to be towards God once again. Albeit, in the resurrection of Christ, this ground is now greater than the soil the first Adam provided for; in the resurrection of Christ humanity now has the fertile soil it requires to grow towards God from in and through the second and greater Adam’s vicarious humanity for the world.  

Jens Zimmerman offers insight on how the aforementioned lineaments operate in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: 

These differences notwithstanding, Bonhoeffer still shares with Heidegger the basic hermeneutic axiom that human knowledge consists in the interpretation of a reality in which one already moves, lives, and has one’s being. For Bonhoeffer as a Christian theologian, this reality is of course determined by Christ alone. Knowledge of one’s participation in this Christ-reality comes only by God’s grace as one is drawn into communion with the Trinity. Bonhoeffer’s solution to the mind-world dichotomy is thus very similar to Heidegger’s, albeit based on a specifically Christian ontology. Already in Act and Being, he develops the fundamentally hermeneutic concept that faith is not cognitive assent to doctrine, but ‘a mode of being’ (DBWE 2: 118). Believing in God is not merely a mental act but involves being drawn into a reality that is ‘prior to the act of faith’ (DBWE 2: 117). This ‘being-in-Christ’ is characterized by an intentionality directed purely to Christ (a fides directa or actus directus), so that the self is transformed by this reality. For Bonhoeffer ‘everything hinges on faith’s knowing itself not as somehow conditioning or even creating this being, but precisely as conditioned and created by it’ (DBWE 2: 118). Human reflection on this reality is a necessary, secondary interpretation of this existential reality. This kind of secondary reflection is called theology, ‘which is not existential knowledge’, but rather an interpretation of the church’s experience of God as crystallized and sedimented in tradition over time through preaching, creeds, and dogma. In this way, theology acts as the ‘preserving and ordering memory [Gedächtnis]’ of the living, ‘spoken word of Christ in the church’ (DBW 2: 131, …). Preaching draws on this memory of Christ’s presence and also shapes it at the same time. 

Participating in this Christ-reality does not constitute some Hinterland or parallel universe allowing the Christian to escape from the world. Bonhoeffer states: 

Like all of creation, the world has been created through Christ and has its existence only in Christ (John 1:10; Col. 1:16). To speak of the world without speaking of Christ is pure abstraction. The world stands in relationship to Christ whether the world knows it or not. (DBWE 6: 68) 

Bonhoeffer is well known for his insistence that the Christian’s participation in the Christ-reality does not negate the world but rather founds proper human responsibility for the world. On account of God’s becoming human, God and humanity, and therefore God and world, must be thought together. Bonhoeffer avers that ‘where the worldly establishes itself as an autonomous sector, this denies the fact of the world’s being accepted in Christ, the grounding of the reality of the world in revelational reality, and thereby the validity of the gospel for the whole world’ (DBWE 6: 60). For Bonhoeffer, the incarnation itself—God’s transcendent truth entering into human history and temporality—sets the hermeneutical pattern for Christian knowledge, wherein the sacred is known only in the profane, the revelational in the rational, and the supernatural only in the natural (DBWE 6: 59). [1] 

Maybe this is your first encounter with this sort of salvific conniving, but hopefully not your last. This is why as Athanasian Reformed types we say there is an historia salutis rather than an ordo salutisThe focus on salvation in this frame is on the pre-history (ad intra) and history (ad extra) of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. We see His life as the Via by which all of humanity comes to have an objective ground as the pre-condition from whence they come to have the Spirit generated capacity to say Yes to God; that is from Christ’s Yes and Amened life for them in the resurrection humanity that ascended and is now seated at the Right Hand of the Father. This might raise some ‘causal’ questions for the Aristotelian-minded among us, that is in regard to how this avoids ‘universalism’ implications, and we have response for that. I have already addressed that more than once elsewhere here on the blog, and in our books. But to be sure, as an Evangelical Calvinist, I affirm humanity’s need for newly-created ground that we might come to genuinely think God from prior to our acknowledgement of God. As has been pressed throughout this post: I maintain, along with the biblical tradition I think from, that it is only in and from the elect and primordial humanity of Jesus Christ that humanity is raised up with His archetypal humanity, and it is from here, from this sacred space of liminal humanity for all, that sub-humanity can rise from the ashes of its desolate life and breathe from the lungs of Christ’s Yes for them coram Deo. 

____________________________________________

[1] Jens Zimmerman, “Bonhoeffer and Contemporary Philosophy,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 439-40. 

 

A Devotional Reflection on Jesus Pro Me / Pro Nobis

I was going to write on the homoousios; this is related, but more devotional. The post I had in mind will come later, here is what it will argue later: If you affirm the two/natures::one person Christology of Chalcedon, this necessarily commits you to a theological hermeneutic/exegesis of ALL of Holy Scripture. What I will be writing in this post will be in reference to how I love Jesus.  

Holy Scripture shapes the type of encounter I have with its reality. Whether it be through lists of genealogies, lists that index various sins, lists that state the Fruit of the Spirit, literature that goes into great prose about salvation history, Hebrew Poetry that elevates the heart into the fresh atmosphere of God’s inner sanctum, so on and so forth. Scripture as God’s signum (sign) brings me into its res (reality) every time I read a word off its pages. Scripture is lively and active full of the resurrection energy of its ascended reality in Jesus Christ. Thus, I seek to read and meditate on its words all the days of my life that I may be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water. It is in this ontic relation with the living and triune God in and through the prosopon (face) of Christ that I find my daily sustenance in order to make trek into the wild west of this rabid world. As I meditate on Scripture I hear God’s still small voice, and it sounds just like Jesus’ voice. This is the warp and woof of my theological existence. Indeed, as the Psalmist, King David bore his heart ‘what have I on this earth, LORD; all I have is You, and Your Word to serve as a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. When I think theologically I am only thinking about the One I’ve encountered in the pages of this antique Holy Book known as the Bible. I gain my life and reason for living as I inhabit the canon of Holy Writ; not because the text itself is Holy, but the One it finds its reality from is. It is through Holy Scripture that I have come to encounter afresh and anew the One who was dead but is now alive! As a result, I live. I don’t live because of a power resident in me, but I live as I find ecstatic existence, moment by moment, by the life-giving reality of the Son of God. It is through His vicarious humanity, from His life pro me as the imago Dei wherein I find mine. As I find my life from Christ’s life pro me, it is here that Scripture’s reality moves and breathes through me by the breath of the Holy Spirit. Not as if I am spirated with Apostolic breath; no, as if I am participatio Christi, and through this participation with Christ ‘I am as He is in this world.’ Through this analogia fidei/relationis (analogy of faith/relation) the Son of God, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Ancient of Days with His white flowing hair is borne witness to through my broken vessel. This is the miracle of new creation breaking into this world of futility that brings the Light of Hope that all humanity, indeed, all of creation screams out for.  

Knowing, through Holy Scripture’s reality, that I am in bond, indeed, a slave of the risen Christ’s, I find rest for my soul; indeed, for the very limbs of my body. As I’ve come to taste and see that God is good, it is in this tasting that I continue to live fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). But this isn’t a life of a self-generated faith, it is the vicarious faith of Christ that I know God from. As for Calvin, as for the Apostle Paul, the faith of Christ is the knowledge of God pro me. It is as God’s being for me as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has freely chosen to be pro me, it is from His being in becoming for me in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ that I am transformed from glory to glory; a transformation that is confronted by the Holy Godman of Jesus Christ, and in His confrontation of my old Adam, he brings me into the theological knowledge of God as He just is the Greater and Second Adam; an Adam who while a man of dust, has through his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension re-created the natural dust He assumed and miraculously made it heavenly dust. This heavenly dusted Godman now sits at the Right Hand of the Father, and He has taken me with Him. I now find my inhabitatio Dei in the very life of the God who was, is, and always will be. In this ascendent and exalted status, through the vision of God mediated by the faith of Christ, as I am seated in the heavenly places with my Lord and Savior, it is here that I know Who God is. Indeed, I have come to know God as a Who, as my Father, Brother, and Holy Comforter rather than an abstract What. My status in the ascended Christ, my status as an adopted son of God by grace, in and from the nature of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, allows me to speak to God face-to-face as it were. I don’t know God as the philosophers know the Pure Being or the Unmoved Mover; I know God as the Son of the Father; and in this knowing I know Him as a son knows His Heavenly Father, as a co-heir with Christ. amen  

  

The Vicarious Prayer of Christ as the Inner Reality of the Atonement: TFT’s Homoousios

The homoousios reigns supreme in Thomas Torrance’s theology. The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ is sui generis in his theology, in regard to the way he deploys it throughout every loci considered. It is TFT’s hermeneutical key, and is what has drawn me to him like unto no other theologian (not even Barth). In the passage I am going to share from him we see him applying this doctrine to a theology of prayer and intercession vis-à-vis the reconciliation that obtains through Christ’s vicarious life for us. Here we see what a doctrine of vicarious prayer looks like in the theology of Torrance. For me, personally, there is great spiritual depth available in what Torrance explicates in this regard; a doxological component that is the sign of any healthy theology. He writes:

Christ’s human prayer is the innermost heart of his atoning obedience to the Father and of his conversion of humanity to God

All through there was an utterly unbroken life of fellowship in unsullied confidence and trust in the Father, and unrelenting prayer, in which he not only repelled the assaults of darkness but so presented himself before the Father in worship in adoration that he made and perfected the positive self offering of man to God. It is here in Jesus Christ, in this worshipping and praying obedience of the creature to the heavenly Father, that all creation is turned and brought back to God the creator and Father almighty. That is the great palingennesia, the great conversion of humanity to God, which receives its ultimate and eternal answer in the divine satisfaction and good pleasure when God the Father raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and for ever affirmed the reconciliation and restored fellowship effected in the obedient life and death of his Son, thus placing it eternally beyond all the assaults of evil and all possibility of undoing. Thus the covenant will of God for fellowship with man was translated into eternal actuality.

Now if Christ’s human prayer is an essential part of his atoning obedience offered to the Father, then it is not only the prayer of the victim but of the priest made on our behalf. Just by being what it was, his own life of petition and clinging dependence upon the Father was a life of intercession to God for us. In his steadfast obedience and life of prayer, Jesus penetrated into our life and recreated the bond between man and God, and therefore also between human beings. It is on that ground, of the recreated bond that he prays for us, intercedes for us, and acts as our mediator, high priest and intercessor, our substitute and representative before God, praying, and offering himself in prayer, standing in for us as our advocate, and pledging us in himself before God — and so he opens up through his flesh a new way to prayer and worship of God.

Or to put it the other way round, as Calvin does so frequently: Christ in his intercession joined to the shedding of his blood prayers that our sins might be pardoned. In and through his passion he bore our word in our name before the Father and prayed for us in our unclean life. Therefore he also puts his own prayer in our unclean mouth that there, on the ground of his obedience and prayer, we may pray with him, ‘Our Father who art in heaven’. As a sign of the recreated bond of the covenant between man and God, and as a sign of the special redemptive form that the covenant will of God took in Israel, Jesus formed round him, as one body with himself, the disciples as the twelve pillars of the new covenant, and it was into their mouths that he put this prayer, ‘Our Father which art in heaven’, teaching them to pray in his name.

Jesus draws us into his own prayer

Then at last, as the prayer life of Jesus pressed towards its climax in Gethsemane he gathered the twelve disciples together at the last supper and formally and solemnly established with them the new covenant in his body and blood. At that supper he interceded for the disciples and for us who would believe on him through their word, and we are allowed to overhear his prayer in John 17. In that prayer, added to his vicarious passion set forth in the supper, he presented himself before the face of the Father and presented us to the Father as included in himself who had come just for this purpose to stand in our place. Then he went forth to Gethsemane and to the cross, where in high priestly intercession and sacrificed he fulfilled in deed and in death the prayer of his whole incarnate life, the prayer of obedience, ‘Not my will, but thine be done,’ and so was obedient unto the death of the cross. Therefore it is that when we in his name celebrate the supper, we also are given to have in our mouth his own prayer, and to pray in echo of his prayer in life and death and eternal intercession, ‘Our Father who art in heaven’, and in that prayer we engage in the fellowship of the new covenant as sons and daughters of the heavenly Father. It is on the ground of this fulfilled covenant from within our alienated will, on the ground of the reconciliation it achieved, that Christ’s victory becomes ours, his payment does away with our debt, his life enables us to be well pleasing to the Father. But it is also on the ground of this bond recreated in him that we are given to share in his prayer of covenant obedience and share in the new covenant inaugurated and established in himself. It is in the name of Jesus, that is, it is in this prayer which Jesus lived out, in sacrifice and petition to the Father, that we are allowed to pray, and so engage in the fulfilled reality and all the fruits of the new covenant as God’s dear children. That is what we do when pray ‘in the name of Jesus’, but it is above all in the heart of the Lord’s supper that we that when we pray ‘Our Father who art in heaven’.[1]

This stuff preaches too well to be the theology of the schoolmen. Oh well.


[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 119-21.