Christology

John Piper’s Conception of God (who ordains evil) Needs to Be Evangelized by Jesus

I just came across this quote from John Piper, yes that John Piper, the one I used to engage with constantly here at this blog and other iterations of my blogging life. In this quote you will read something quite despicable; but it’s not foreign to the Reformed tradition. It’s what you get when you have a decretal conception of a God-world relation; i.e. a conception of God that sees him inter-linked to the world in a hierarchy of being, wherein he is Pure Being, and as such in order to keep him pristine he can only relate to the world, as Almighty, through a set of decrees that sovereignly order the world according to necessitarian and mechanical levers and handles of causation. In this conceiving of things God, in order for his ultimate sovereignty to be affirmed must be thought of as the author of all things; including the most heinous evils we could ever imagine. This is the type of God John Piper thinks from, and unfortunately he thinks this God for all who sit under his teaching. Take a look at this disturbing quote from him; you’ll find if you spend any time at all with Piper that quotes like this are common-place with him.

Disturbing right? This is what happens to your doctrine of divine providence when you have an underdeveloped or ontotheological (i.e. philosophically based) conception of Godself; you end up with a malformed notion of God that looks nothing like the God that has appeared in the face of Jesus Christ—indeed, as Thomas Torrance would say of Piper’s God, I’d imagine: ‘here we have a God behind the back of Jesus.’

I thought it might be instructive to share a bit from Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink about the important role that the Trinity must take if we are going to responsibly and Christianly speak about God’s relation to the world (his providence) without falling into the deplorable error that Piper does in his misguided discussion of God. They write (we catch them midstream in a discussion about the same issue we are discussing):

Thus, for a long time the doctrine of providence remained detached from any proper biblical context. Even Adolf Hitler could appeal to it during the Second World War when he declared that, by providence, Germany was entering the era of the Third Reich. This is a deplorable example of how belief in providence, when isolated from its biblical context, can become a brutal ideology that plays into the hands of dictators and repressors. For such reasons, when reflecting on our faith today, we must emphatically articulate God’s providence in Trinitarian terms, from beginning to end. For all God’s acts ad extra—that is, directed toward creation—take place “from the Father through the Son in the Spirit” (Gregory of Nyssa, Ad Ablabium; NPNF 5:334). The common conviction that nothing happens accidentally, since everything is guided by a higher power, is not shared by all Christians and by many other spiritually inclined people. The doctrine of providence is no articulus mixtus, no “mixed” article that even non-Christians can to some extent understand and support. It has its own unique setting in the Christian faith—a setting of trust in the God whom we have learned to know in Jesus Christ and who, through his Spirit, shapes us to reflect his image. Only from this perspective can bold statements be made about the unlimited scope of God’s care. These statements never convey neutral information but are statements of faith.[1]

Kooi and Brink provide a proper framework through which Christians ought to think of God’s relation to the world (in his providential care) in and through; they rightfully identify what Piper fails to. Yes, Piper uses the language of God, but the conception of God he communicates, the informing theology he thinks God from, has more to do with a Stoic conception of God than it does with the God Self-revealed and exegeted for us in Jesus Christ (Jn 1.18). If we think of God’s providential care and relation to the world properly, as Christians, we do so thoroughly situated in the filial bond of the Father to the Son by the Holy Spirit; from the life we’ve been graciously invited into by the effervescent and effulgent life of God. It’s within this ‘space’ where we think about God’s interaction with the world; with us. If we approach God this way we don’t end up attributing the monstrous things that Piper has to God. We understand that God’s relation to the world is cruciform in shape, and we see God’s love demonstrated that way. We don’t think of God’s all-power in terms of the Actual Infinite or Pure Being God that Piper thinks from; we think of God’s power in terms of a God who humbled himself, became obedient to the point of death, as a man, that he might exalt humanity with and in his vicarious humanity that he assumed in the mediatorial and priestly humanity of Jesus Christ.

Piper has a doctrine of God at work in his understanding of providence and a God-world relation, it’s just that it’s a conception that is based on the god of the philosophers and not the God revealed in Jesus Christ. He means well, but his good intentions don’t make up for the despicable God he recounts for us in his understanding of God’s providence. He needs Jesus to evangelize his conception of God; if Piper had that we wouldn’t have to write up these types of posts.

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 238-39.

*h/t. John Flett for spotting the Piper quote on Twitter. Truly, if you read Piper just for a minute you will realize that this quote isn’t cherry-picked from him, it in fact characterizes the demeanor of his theology.

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Pierre Maury, “An Election without Christology,” and The Evangelical Calvinist Way Explained

John Calvin calls the reality of the absolute decree in regard to predestination a “labyrinth;” others in the tradition have equally voiced concern about election as if it is a secret thing bound up in the hidden will of God in eternity. Not to get too overstated, many of these same folks, mostly Calvin, offered relief to the terror that God’s predestination could cause if it wasn’t chained close enough to Jesus; indeed Calvin, even though operating under the Augustinian way began to turn this discussion Christward. If nothing else Calvin provided some of the trajectory and grammar required to develop a better more fully aware Christological account of election. People like John McLeod Campbell, Thomas Torrance, and Pierre Maury were only too ready to pick up the baton and do the kind of developmental work that us Evangelical Calvinists are also keen in developing for the church of God in Jesus Christ. As an example of someone who not only identifies this lacuna in the works of Augustine, Calvin, et al. Pierre Maury, a French theologian of no ill-repute, has this to say:

An Election without Christology

How has it been possible to develop a doctrine full of what Pascal called “false windows”—those windows painted on the facades of some old houses in order to achieve an apparent symmetry? This is what we now need to look into.

We shall see here again the weakness, which we have noted several times, of a doctrine of election that is independent—I mean unconnected to Christology, or rather one that sees in the redemptive Person of Christ nothing but the executor of a purpose formed without him in the darkness of the mystery of God.

If St Augustine, St Thomas, Calvin, Luther, and Pascal had seen more clearly that God has no other thought, no other will, no other action than Jesus Christ, that he dwells in Christ in the fullness of the Godhead, if they had, like St John of the Cross, repeated the famous sentence, “God never speaks any word but one, and that is his Son,” doubtless they would have given us a description of “the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:1) by the decision of God, a description that would not make us tremble, but would fill our troubled hearts with peace. And if they had known more clearly that to be elected is to be elected in Christ, and that this election of which we are the object is as freely sovereign, and as independent of any merit on our part, as the absolute decree whose power they venerated, but could not praise, because it was utterly hidden from them, doubtless they would not have caused so many misunderstandings, nor such anxiety in the consciences it was their intention to reassure, and in the long run such ignorance—relative at least—of the love of God and of his Son.[1]

If you sense antecedents, or if you hear echoes of Karl Barth here, or Thomas Torrance, it is because, as I noted in another post, Pierre Maury served, according to Barth, as a decisive impetus to Barth’s own Christologically concentrated understanding of election. This particular essay of Maury’s, “Predestination,” was written after Barth had developed his own understanding in CD II/2; but these thoughts are original to Maury, per his own unique movement towards an development of a Christologically conditioned doctrine of election. Even here in the essay we can see his reference back to St John of the Cross; and this is something I want to alert all of us to. In the history of interpretation prior to Barth or modern developments we have antecedent theologies wherein a doctrine of election that is Christologically steeped is latent. The proof of that is what we see right here in Maury’s essay, or in the work of Thomas Torrance with his constant reference back to Athanasius.

The Evangelical Calvinist Way

My desire as a young (43yrs) and impassioned theologian is to offer an alternative account of evangelical theology to the church catholic. As a North American, whatever I write will be tinted by that location, but hopefully because what I write is so rooted in the transcendent but scandalous particularity of God in Christ, the reach it has will be greater than my own particularity and have some capacity to edify the church catholic.

As Evangelical Calvinists we see a real lacuna in what evangelical Christians are being offered in regard to the type of theology they are being fed through the collaborative work of movements like The Gospel Coalition. I remain very unsatisfied with what is being offered, theologically, by TGC, and so because of that, and because I know I’m not alone, I want to offer alternative ways into Reformed theology that are present in the history of interpretation; Maury being a good example of this alternative way. I want to continue to offer an alternative to the Covenantal theology that the Young, Restless, and Reformed are feeding their churches Sunday in, Sunday out. I believe there is a better way; it’s not a way, as even Maury illustrates, that leaves behind what the past has offered. No, on the contrary, it is attempting to be more creative, more industrious in the resourccement process; looking for thinkers scattered throughout the tapestry of the history of Reformed theology (and beyond) who can be brought to bear, and help us develop an ‘always reforming’ theology that is given regulative and normative reality in and from Jesus Christ; let him alone be the regula fidei (rule of faith)!

In many ways this venture is a lonely one; it is prone to be misunderstood; or to be associated with other movements of theological development that evangelicals are suspicious of. This way seems reckless to the mainstream of evangelical and mainline theologies, because it seems to not care so much about fitting into usual modes of theological and ecclesial being; people fear that the Evangelical Calvinist mode is a wayward one. The way I see all of this, what we are attempting to do with Evangelical Calvinism, is just what I’ve been noting above; we want to follow a Christ conditioned approach that actually works against many of the more church-centered and soteriologically driven (in abstraction) bases for doing the theological work of the church. We aren’t as concerned with the period of church history we resource, instead it’s more about what we resource relative to the truth of it all; i.e. the truth and implications required by the Gospel reality itself. Here is part of what I wrote in the co-written section of our newest Evangelical Calvinist Vol2 book:

In Scholasticism Reformed: Essays in Honor of Willem J. van Asselt, Martijn Bac and Theo Pleizier offer a chapter entitled “Teaching Reformed Scholasticism in the Contemporary Classroom.” Bac and Pleizer outline how scholasticism should be taught today in theological classrooms and they develop how scholastics of the past retrieved authoritative voices for their own material and theological purposes. More than simply reconstructing the history of ideas and theological development, proper scholastic method was concerned to engage the concepts of prior voices from the tradition by appropriating themes and motifs that fit broader theological concerns, and all in order to forward the cause of theological truth. In other words, the greater concern was to organically move within the trajectory and mood set out by the past in order to constructively engage the present and future by developing the ideas of these past voices by placing them within the burgeoning and developing movement of Reformed theology. What Bac and Pleizer highlight is that the scholastic mode of retrieval is very much like Evangelical Calvinism’s method; which ironically runs counter to the typical critique of Evangelical Calvinism as illustrated by Muller. Here is what Bac and Pleizer write in regard to the scholastic method, and what was called “reverential exposition”:

Reformed theologians did not read their sources of Scripture and tradition in a historical sense, i.e., as part of an ongoing tradition, but rather as ‘authorities’ of truth. Until the breakdown of scholasticism and the historical revolution, sources were not quoted in a historical way, be they the Bible, Aristotle, Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas. A quotation did not indicate a correct historical understanding of what its original author had meant, but was read systematically as bearer of truth. From this it follows that contradictions among authorities were solved logically rather than hermeneutically.[2]

There is a real irony to what we’re doing; as I argued further in our book, and you get a sense of above, what we are attempting to do is work within the spirit of the Reformed faith—even more pointedly, the scholasticism Reformed faith. This is ironic because it is folks like TGC and other movements popular in the Reformed evangelical world who see themselves as being faithful to resourcing the Protestant theology of the 16th and 17th centuries; and yet they aren’t really operating in that spirit at all. What is currently underway in the evangelical world (and I’ll keep picking on The Gospel Coalition) is not just a resourcing project (which is the real “scholastic and Reformed” way), but instead a repristination project; a project that is simply seeking to replicate the theology of the past, as they perceive it, driven not by any kind of intentional hermeneutic other than one of piety.

Piety isn’t bad, but it’s not enough; and it’s not thick enough to provide a real hermeneutic and intention from whence to resource from. This is what I am hoping to get across; Evangelical Calvinism as a “resource movement,” as a movement that genuinely does work from the ‘always reforming’ spirit of the Reformed scholastic past, has a center. The center isn’t a piety derived from an individualistically grounded conception of election and the church, instead we are resourcing with the goal of developing theology that is intensively grounded in and from Jesus Christ; radically so.

Conclusion

I submit to you the Pierre Maury example of the type of theology we are attempting to resource for the church of God in Jesus Christ. It’s a more catholic way because it thinks from Christ, the Lord of the church, rather than simply from a particular expression or instantiation of the church that we find present in the local theology of the Protestant Reformed orthodox theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries. We aren’t attempting to promote a certain piety in the church, we are seeking God in Christ first and realizing that all these things [including a healthy piety] will be added unto us from there; as we seek Christ in regulative ways, first.

All of this sounds audacious; I know! But it is the way I am committed to, and a way that I believe an evangelical Christian would rather follow. We aren’t just a receiving faith, we are a speaking faith; and we believe that God in Christ continues to speak to his church afresh and anew today. It is this reality that we work from.

 

[1] Pierre Maury, “Predestination,” in Simon Hattrell, ed., Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a “Decisive Impetus” to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), loc 2115, 2123, 2130.

[2] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Introduction: On Dogmatics and Devotion in the Christian Life,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene,OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017), 8.

God’s Governmental Providence as Cruciform in Shape: Human Suffering and Death, with Reference to Nabeel Qureshi

“The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; 2. for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.” Psalm 27:1-2

The Psalmist captures a reality that many in the world do not like; he identifies a truth that kicks against a self-possessed humanity who thinks it belongs to itself. But the Christian finds great comfort in realizing that this is the reality; that the world and all its bounty belongs to the living God of heaven and earth. The Apostle Paul sharpens this idea from a Christocentric angle; the idea that not only is the earth the LORD’s, but that we, as his people do not belong to ourselves; that God in Christ, owner of the heavens and the earth, penetrated our humanity with his in Christ and replaced our self-possessed selves with the recreated reality of a new humanity that realizes that it is only possessed by the living God. Paul writes pointedly: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”[1] This is almost an unfathomable reality, but one that has been made known as what is real through the goodness and graciousness of God revealed in his cruciform life in Jesus Christ.

These passages could be applied in a variety of ways, but what I want to highlight, at a theological level, is how this works towards thinking about God’s care, about his providential sustenance of the earth. And I want to use that context to discuss life and death; with particular focus, in this instance, on the life and death of Nabeel Qureshi, and all those in the world who are suffering in untold ways. I want to see if I can work toward making sense of it all from the big vantage point of God’s providence.

There are at least three ways to think about God’s providence: 1) Conservation, 2) Concursus, and 3) Governance. I want to focus on God’s governance; i.e. how in a God/world relation we might conceive of his inter-action with his creation in an active way; but in such a way that he remains in control, and thus not conditioned by the creation even as he enters it in the Incarnation (Logos ensarkos). In an effort to bring clarity to what is meant by the third prong of God’s providence—his governance—let us read how Dutch theologians Brink and Kooi develop this idea:

3 Finally now, the third aspect of divine providence: God’s gubernatio (governance), or directio (leadership). Traditionally, this part of God’s providence was conceptualized in rather static terms, as if God rules the world as a manager does a company, doing what needs to be done, minding the store. The Bible, however, speaks in much more dynamic—more precisely, in eschatological—terms about God’s rule. The fact that God rules the world means, first and foremost, that he guides it in a particular direction, toward the final realization of his plans and promises. Therefore, history is geared toward the kingdom, for also in his rule the Father works via—and thus in the mode of—the Son and the Spirit. For the time being, God rules “from the wood of the cross” (Venantius Fortunatus, sixth century), that is, in spite of all kinds of misery, setbacks, and experiences of loss. History becomes ever more similar to Jesus’s road to the cross, just as the apocalyptic portions of the New Testament teach. In addition, it should be noted that God works through his Spirit and not by (human) might or power (Zech. 4:6). We should often pay more attention to small things than to powerful revolutions or major changes in society. Where people are touched by the s/Spirit of the gospel and on that basis experience a decisive renewal in their lives, there God is at work, guiding the world to its future destination. So, God’s direction often proceeds via small things and detours, another reason that God’s providential rule is first and foremost a matter of faith and not something that can be gleaned from a newspaper. But it is precisely this faith that is certain that the outcome will not be a failure.[2]

My guess is that when you first heard the words God, providence, and governance, that your mind, like mine did, turned immediately to the description Brink and Kooi started their paragraph with: “…Traditionally, this part of God’s providence was conceptualized in rather static terms, as if God rules the world as a manager does a company, doing what needs to be done, minding the store.” But, as was encouraging to see they made the turn, as they should, to the reality that God’s governance of the world, of his good earth, is cruciform in shape; that he rules this earth by penetrating it in and through the humanity he assumed in Jesus Christ. That his governance is in his humiliation and vulnerability in his being in becoming man, and his reign climaxes in his exaltation of humanity in his risen and ascended humanity as the God-man who can sympathize with the yet broken humanity; but as the one who has conquered the brokenness of this world precisely at the point where it looked like he was going to lose it.

When I think about the death of Nabeel Qureshi, and think about it from the backdrop of God’s governance as described by Brink and Kooi, I have hope. I don’t have all the answers to the questions that I have, but I have hope because the God who is in control is not an aloof deity governing the world like some sort of removed corporatist; he instead became the One for the many, by becoming one of us, entering our fallen humanity and redeeming it from the inside out. He reigns supreme and providentially over the creation as one who has tasted his own creation; all along remaining distinct from his creation in the miracle of the hypostatic union, of God become human in the singular person of Jesus Christ. This is the hope that Nabeel Qureshi lived and died his life from; from the death and life of Jesus Christ.

Not only is Jesus the Lamb Slain, but he is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah risen; the One who is prime and supreme over all of creation. He governs the world from the reality of his resurrection, with hands still bearing the scars of their piercing for us. Nabeel, and all those who die in Christ, currently behold those nailed scarred hands; the hands that hold this world together, and for the purpose that all creation, that the sons and daughters of God in that creation, will finally behold the hands of such a King and ruler as this.

 

[1] I Corinthians 6:19-20, NIV.

[2] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 243-44.

The Second Coming of Christ: Reorienting How We Think of That Through Eschatology and Apocalyptic

Like many evangelicals I grew up under the pale of Left Behind Theology (i.e. Premillennial, Pretribulational, Dispensational theology). Attendant with this type of approach is living with a kind of futurist ‘apocalyptic’ dread (yet at the same time excited anticipation). It is this mood that I would contend has largely created a lot of what we have been seeing Hollywood produce in their dystopian or ‘end of days’ zombie apocalypse types of thrillers; they do so because there’s a market for it. Living this way, the person interprets every hurricane, earthquake, massive tornado, geo-political kerfuffle, and war as portending of the rapture of Jesus Christ for his church. The focus of this mood only gets heightened when things appear to be kicking off in the nation of Israel; since Left Behind Theology believes world history, according to God’s prophetic timetable, is all about the nation of Israel. Proponents of this approach will often refer to Israel, and in particular, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, as God’s prophetic timepiece.

I thought writing a post on this issue would be timely given what’s currently going on in the world. Don’t get me wrong, my reading of Scripture, and Jesus’s teaching in particular, lends itself to the idea that things will only be getting worse (like birth pangs) right up until the end. And given my current belief (as an amillennial advocate) that we are in the tribulation Jesus spoke of, and the idea that right before he comes a second time there will be unparalleled tribulation (gk. thlipsis) worldwide, what is unfolding in the world as I write this does raise the antennae a bit. It is the intensity of it all; the convergence of seemingly a million points. Now, some of this sense of intensity could be because of our instant exposure to everything, as it is distilled for us via social media. But I think the conflagration of so many things at once—natural disasters, wars, global economic upheaval, genocide, moral rot, super-diseases—does or should suggest that this world, given to the unwilling futility that it is (cf. Rom. 8), is ready for the reality of the sons of God to be revealed in Jesus Christ; in other words, she seems ripe for the return of Jesus Christ.

With the above said, and in an attempt to bring sobriety to this issue, I thought I would try to give another twist on how we approach two key terms that are used to speak of ‘end times’; i.e. eschatology and apocalyptic. Neither term is all that easy to define, particularly because of how they have been used in various contexts. Both terms are Greek in origin, eschatology simply meaning: ‘the study of last times’ and apocalyptic meaning ‘the unveiling’ (in Greek this is the word we get ‘Revelation’ from, as in the biblical book Revelation). But there’s more to it than just these types of lexical or denotative definitions, and it is this range of meaning, per the Christian theological context I want to alert us to. In order to do that I will refer us to TF Torrance to help us get a fuller, more theologically attuned grasp for how the term eschatology and apocalyptic can be used. After we get more depth understanding on this terminology, we will then return to a discussion about the second coming of Christ, and hopefully be able to integrate this thickening measure (by appeal to Torrance) into our discussion. Admittedly, this is probably not what you were expecting when you clicked over to a post on the second coming of Christ, and after reading my first two paragraphs; but bear with me.[1]

Here Torrance gives us a kind of genealogy of how the language of eschatology and apocalyptic have been used; and how he thinks they have been co-opted in an unfortunate way by Left Behind Theology. Within his kind of bemoaning of how this language has come to be used in ill-advised ways, we will also see how he thinks the terminology has and should been used within the history of the church. It is this that I want to draw our attention to, primarily, and what I will respond to further as we pick this discussion back up on the other side of Torrance. Torrance writes (at length):

(a) The loss of mainstream eschatology and the divorce of apocalyptic from prophetic

The main teaching about the last things in the West (apart from isolated thinkers like Bengel) has largely been left to sects whose roots go back into the Anabaptist tradition. Although the extremes of those early Schwärmer have not been repeated to the same extent in modern times, it still remains true that their modern successors have developed an eschatological emphasis that is one sided in its divorce of the apocalyptic view of the kingdom as other-worldly, coming at the end of time, from the prophetic view of the kingdom as breaking into the midst of time and involving history, and therefore that is constantly on the brink of becoming fantastic. Against this apocalyptic eschatology divorced from actual history, the church will always be in revolt, for apocalypse can only have Christian meaning in the closest association with present history.

(b) The relegation of eschatology from the centre to the end of dogmatics

When the church came to formulate her teaching about such doctrines as death and judgement, the life everlasting and the return of Christ, she tended to append it to the end of dogmatics rather uncertainly, failing to grasp these doctrines aright in themselves, and failing to take up the New Testament stress upon eschatology as integral to the very heart of the gospel and to every doctrine of the faith. With a tradition such as this in the church, the words of H.R. Mackintosh have great relevance and point: ‘It is a just and illumining thought that every system of theology should be read backwards at least once, commencing with the last things, since it is in the conclusion that we find the truest index of the whole.’[2]

Okay, let’s try to rein this rather academic sounding stuff back into accessible discussion, and within a context about the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Let’s start with Torrance’s point b, and work into his point a from there. I am going to oversimplify all of this with the hope of making this more understandable for a broader audience; and also with the hope of bringing a broader audience back into a more sober thought process when it comes to “eschatological” or ‘end times’ discussions; a sobriety that I think is lacking in the broader North American evangelical church. In Torrance’s second paragraph (“b”), he is referring to the Apostle’s Creed,[3] he’s critiquing, through his former teacher, H.R. Mackintosh, how even early on ‘end times’ stuff (i.e. ‘the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting’) is essentially annexed or appended to the end of the creed rather than foregrounding it. This, in Torrance’s mind, has the unintended effect of making it seem like creation has been moving in a linear/progressive march forward till we come to the end; but for Torrance, and really for much of the church’s history, this isn’t how end times stuff was thought of (at least not in an Athanasian stream of thought). What Torrance wants to re-emphasize is what another Scottish theologian, David Fergusson, says so well, “The world was made so that Christ might be born.” In other words, what most Christians, of today, think is coming at the “end” of history, in fact was what motivated the beginning of history to begin with; i.e. that creation’s purpose (telos) has always already been conditioned by and for the reality of God in Jesus Christ.[4]

This brings us to Torrance’s point a. Torrance is concerned, and so am I, that because ‘sects’ of Christians (like those who promote Dispensational inspired popularly called Left Behind Theology) have separated thinking about eschatology (in a dualist fashion) from this present [historical] reality, and relegated it to an apocalyptic understanding of things as we see it in the movies; and thus eschatology has more to do with an ‘unveiling’ or apocalypse that is solely futurist oriented (i.e. at the ‘end’ of history), and grounded in some sort of non-worldly (ethereal – Platonic) reality, when in fact an actual Christian understanding of eschatology is grounded in the idea that God in Christ has always already been breaking into the world apocalyptically (dramatically) from the moment he decided to create and give the world its purpose in and from and for his Son incarnate (incarnandus), Jesus Christ. In other words, from Torrance’s perspective, and from much of the church’s perspective in the history (although not as articulate and ‘modern’ as Torrance’s accounting), world history, ‘natural’ history, ‘creational’ reality has always been tensed and conditioned by the apocalyptic in-breaking reality of God’s freely elected life to be God Immanuel (‘with us’) in Christ. Torrance, as do I, sees all of history from an apocalyptic reality; meaning that it has always been grounded by and oriented for the unveiling of his life for the world in Jesus Christ.

This is apocalyptic (!), that the Kingdom of God in Christ (cf. Dan. 2) stands behind and indeed over the kingdoms of this world in such a way that as we read the book of Revelation, for instance, we ought to see all of that imagery, the imagery that finds its reality in God’s ineffable life for the world in Christ, as what this world has always already been up against.[5] Apocalypse, I would contend, along with Torrance, in a properly Christian eschatological accounting of things, understands that creation has always been about recreation in the resurrection of God in Christ; and recreation thus was the impetus for creation to begin with. I.e. the apocalyptic reality and idea that humanity would forever be and stand with and participate in and from the Triune life of God in and through the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

I absolutely failed at making this accessible; it’s still quite academic and dealing with many theological themes, that unless you have the proper context, remains, I would imagine, rather inaccessible. But let me leave us with this: what I am hoping has come through is that as Christians the sensational and ‘fantastic’ reality that orients our whole existence as Christian persons before God is that creation has been infused (not pantheistically or panentheistically mind you) with the dramatic and apocalyptic reality that we were created to be recreated in Christ, in such a way, that we might behold the ‘face of God’ in and through Jesus Christ as the very ground of our lives; as such human history has always been suffused with the apocalyptic reality, in and from the eschatological hope that creation would eventually realize its ultimate purpose as she met her end as a new beginning in the recreation of all things made new in Jesus Christ.

What this should do, at least in my opinion, as far as posture in the world as Christians goes (think of II Peter 3), is that we should live in an expectant state; realizing that even as we see the world apparently unraveling at the seams, we understand that creation, on the analogy of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ always had to go through the rupture of creation to recreation in order to realize its actual purpose for living. The consequences of the Fall, the consequences that the Son of Man entered into for us in his assumption of a fallen humanity, have not left us, but we indeed live with the reality that the eschatology of God’s life in Christ has provided the kind of apocalyptic outlook that we need to maintain as we engage with a world that indeed has no hope but to make it through the next hurricane or big earthquake or threat of WW3. That is, we already, by faith, participate in and from the apocalyptic reality of God, as he entered the drama of human history, culminating in death, and then resurrecting to new life in the resurrection of Christ. As Christians, as an apocalyptic people, as we walk by faith, we need to bear witness to the world that eventually faith will give way to sight. This is the eschatology we live from; from the apocalypse of God’s life made known to the world in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

[1] I’m thinking you were hoping for something more sensational, something more “apocalyptic.” I’m hoping after you read this post you will come away with a new sense for the sensational and fantastic when it comes to thinking about eschatology and the apocalyptic; precisely because you’ll see how central Jesus Christ is to it all. Not just with reference to the ‘future’, but how that future reality has been shaping the beginning (protology cf. Gen. 1.1) from before the beginning; how Jesus has been the reason from time before “time” in regard to what this world was created for to begin with (just look at my little sidebar anecdote from David Fergusson).

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 303-04.

[3] I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Amen.

[4] This has to do with what is called in the Greek protology, or “the study of first things” (e.g. original creation).

[5] See Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, for further biblical theological context.

Chalcedonian Logic and the Diminished Christology of The Nashville Statement

When we separate the work of Jesus Christ from his person, or vice versa we will necessarily end up with not only a deflated expression of the Gospel, but also attendant with that, a weakened sense of ethics and holiness. It is the Chalcedonian logic to keep these two realities inseparably related—the person and work of Jesus Christ—while not failing to continually recognize that there is a distinction between the human and divine natures in the singular person of Jesus Christ. I just conflated two different things, but they too are related; I conflated a discussion about the two-natures/one person reality that Chalcedon sought to provide orthodox grammar for, with the idea that we should never separate the person and work and the work and person of Jesus Christ one from the other. The reason the conflation is present, I think, is by design. It’s the realization by the early church Fathers that any statement about God become man was one with deeply grounded soteriological impact. George Hunsinger, as he develops the Chalcedon logic, interacting with a pithy and elegant statement by George Herbert notes this:

“In Christ two natures met to be thy cure.” When George Herbert wrote these words, he captured the essence of Chalcedonian Christology, with all its strange complexity and simplicity, in a single elegant line. It is sometimes overlooked that the interest behind Chalcedonian Christology has always been largely soteriological. Herbert’s line, however, makes the point very well. It is the saving work of Christ—to be thy cure—which serves as the guiding intention behind the Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s person, just as the definition of his person (following Herbert) — in Christ two natures met — serves as the crucial premise of Christ’s saving work. Change the definition of Christ’s person — make him less than fully God and fully human at the same time — and the saving cure Christ offers changes drastically as well. In other words, just as it makes no sense to have a high view of Christ’s person without an equally high view of his work, so a high view of Christ’s work — in particular, his saving death — cannot be sustained without a suitably high view of his person. The work presupposes the person just as the person conditions the work.[1]

Hunsinger in a following footnote comments further on the relationship between the person and work of Christ, and how, if diminished in any way, one from the other or vice versa, that diminishes one side of the equation or the other. Here, in particular, Hunsinger is offering elaboration in the last sentence we just read from him above:

This latter sentence, by the way, states a basic rule of all Christology, although as applied here it sheds light on a particular type, namely, the Chalcedonian. In any Christology, at least when internally coherent (which cannot always be presupposed), the person (p) and the work (w) of Christ mutually imply each other: if w, then p; and if p, then w. Insofar as modern Christology has typically abandoned a high view of Christ’s person, it has also abandoned the correspondingly high conception of Christ’s saving work that Chalcedonian Christology is meant to sustain. Only a high Christology can state without equivocation, for example, that Jesus Christ is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). If Christ’s saving work consists in no more than his functioning as a spiritual teacher, a moral example, a symbol of religious experience, or even a unique bearer and transmitter of the Holy Spirit, a high or Chalcedonian view of Christ’s person is logically unnecessary. As modernist Christologies typically evidence (though not always forthrightly), such a saving figure need only be “fully human” without also being “fully God.”[2]

Application

This discussion can be taken in a variety of ways, but I want to take it towards ethics; I actually prefer a discussion on holiness, but ethics is a related loci (at least for the Christian). I simply want to state that: insofar as Christians talk about what it means to be holy before God, and more generally how that works out in a theory of ethics, that this should never be done in abstraction from the person of Jesus Christ. I think this is a symptom of a faulty theological endeavor; i.e. to somehow think the church  could ever talk about holiness without in the same breath tying that concretely into Christology. Without the person of Jesus Christ there is no work of salvation, and without the work of salvation there is no way for Christians to participate in and from the holiness of God; and without that participation there is no way to develop a Christian ethic.

I am really trying to get past the Nashville Statement, but I think this is another reason I really really dislike it so much. It actually reflects a way of thinking that thinks about things in abstraction from Jesus Christ. Thomas Torrance would say that this is because of what he calls the ‘Latin Heresy,’ or a dualistic way of conceiving of God’s person and work in Jesus Christ. I see a lack of the Chalcedonian pattern and logic funding evangelical statements like the Nashville Statement, and maybe this all flows from my years and years long critique of evangelical and classical Reformed theology in general; indeed, I’m sure it does flow from this.

To attempt to speak about being holy before God is not possible without first speaking about the person and work of God in Jesus Christ. The picture is too flat, and Christologically speaking, too adoptionistic when Christians attempt to make statements about being holy (no matter what that entails: i.e. human sexuality, race issues, age issues, socio-economic issues etc.). If we sever, even in our speech, the work of Christ from the person of Christ, on the Chalcedonian logic we inevitably diminish the person of Christ. It’s interesting that many of those, or at least some of the more prominent signers of the Nashville Statement endorse the heretical view of the eternal functional subordination (EFS) of the Son to the Father. I wonder if there is a tacit relationship between that, and the diminished Christology we see functioning in statements like the one from Nashville?

I clearly have more work to do in regard to tying many of the loose ends I’m leaving us with together, but such is a blog post. I am seriously going to make this the last post I write on the Nashville Statement.

 

[1] George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 131.

[2] Ibid., 131-2 n.2.

*I stole the picture of the Chinese Jesus from Paul Metzger’s usage of it in his post.

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.