God’s Trinitarian Sovereignty

There is constant argument in regard to how God is ‘sovereign,’ with reference to His control in the affairs of the created order. The history of interpretation, in the main, all agree, of course, that God is the Creator; that He is the ‘governor,’ the ‘conserver,’ and the concursus Dei who works alongside creation in ways that surpass our puny understanding. But beyond these general agreements there is still discordance in regard to a theory of causation. Classical Calvinism famously operates from what Barth often refers to as the decretrum absolutum, which others might call ‘causal determinism,’ or maybe logico-causal necessitarian determinism, as TF Torrance does. Whatever coinage one wants to use, this tradition on a theory of causation is largely Aristotelian in nature. We see this theory dominant in much of mediaeval theology; we see it even, at points in Luther and Calvin; and we definitely see it as the normata of the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology that developed, respectively, in the 16th and 17th centuries. At a more popular level, today, we can see these sorts of discussions obtaining between 5 point TULIP Calvinists, evangelical Arminians, and what some are calling Provisionism. 

As an alternative to the classic fare on this locus David Kelsey offers a theory that we might call ‘Trinitarian-dynamic-relationalism’ (my phraseology). He writes:

In further support of Wood’s proposal, it is worth noting that there has been some disagreement among translators of the Greek Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed into English about how to translate pantocrator in the first article of the Creed. Perhaps the most common translation is “omnipotent,” following the Latin translation of the term into omnipotem. However, for example, in his classic collection of ancient Christian texts, Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettenson translates it as “All-sovereign.” That obviously comports well with Wood’s suggestion.

In “holding all things together,” the Triune God is “prior” or “prevenient” in that it is God who always takes the initiative. In being “prior,” God “takes the lead” in providing for creatures’ well-being by bringing and “holding” together the resources for their well-being available within the limits of the ways in which they are situated in their present circumstances. That priority in “holding together” is one sort of “sovereignty.”

Conceiving God’s providential sovereignty as God’s “holding together” what goes on among creatures is quite different from conceiving God’s “sovereignty” as God’s “controlling” what goes on. “Control” is exercised extrinsically, from “outside” the creatures that are “controlled,” by power that is externally applied to them to cause them to change and interact in ways determined by the agent that exercises the power. As we saw in Chapter 3, construed as analogies for providence as God’s control of creatures, terms like “sovereign,” “kingly,” and “Lord,” too easily allow for, even invite, inferences that are highly problematic. However, those inferences are blocked when God’s “sovereignty” in providential care is understood as sovereignty of God’s “holding all things together” in ways ordered to creatures’ well-being in both absolutely general and particularly differentiated ways.

The sense in which the Trinity is “sovereign” in providential care when the latter is characterized in terms of the pantocrator can be further nuanced by a more detailed reflection on the implications of the claim that is none other than the Triune God that is the pantocrator. Here, we reverse a traditional pattern of theological reflection on God’s providence. The traditional move was to explain providence first, often in terms of the concept of the cosmos’ arche. Only after that had been accomplished did it introduce the doctrine of the Trinity. It, thus, introduced the doctrine of the Trinity as a theological topic entirely extrinsic to providence. It ascribed providence, already fully explicated without reference to the Trinity, to the first “Person” of the Trinity. It did so simply because creative blessing is also ascribed to the first “Person” (cf. the Nicence Creed’s opening “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth”). I want to explore here, in contrast with that pattern of thought, how Trinitarian doctrine of God can serve as the context within which to nuance further the sense in which the Trinity’s sovereignty in providential care is the Triune God’s prevenience, God’s taking the initiative in working for creatures’ well-being in their kinds.1

I am still in the process of reading Kelsey’s book; in fact, I am up to the point of the quote in my reading. We will see how he fleshes these things out further. But what is evident is that he is focusing on what has been called the concursus Dei, or ‘God’s coming alongside,’ in the created and re-created reality, as that is understood with reference to Jesus Christ for us (my spin). He identifies what readers here might be familiar with, primarily because I have focused on this myself with some fervor. That is the all-too-common way of the negative approach to theology to speculate about godness without simply thinking Godness as that has been spoken and revealed for us in the Son, Jesus Christ. Kelsey is clearly going to attempt to tackle the dilemma of God’s ‘sovereignty’ by eliding the inherent problem of abstracting God’s oneness (de Deo uno) from His threeness (de Deo trino) as classical theisms post-mediaeval theology are prone to do. So, Kelsey, at least inchoately, seems to be moving forward from within what some have referred to as the Trinitarian Renaissance of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. I simply take the so-called ‘renaissance’ to be a look back to Nicene theology in general; a look back past the pitfalls associated with the mediaeval via negativa and its apophatic theology. His premise, at the outset, seems promising.

However, Kelsey concludes, for my money, what is important is that the theologian thinks God from God as revealed in Jesus Christ. This is the classical Trinitarian and Nicene way of theologizing. It is a way that is at odds with a majority, if not all of the Post Reformed orthodoxy; that is in regard to the way they respectively thought the singularity of God in abstraction from His multiplicity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It must be from within this frame, I would argue, that the way we think God’s relationship to the world, to creatures, must be thought. If this is how God eternally has related within Himself, in se, then it only follows, since He is the Creator, indeed, that our relationship to Him, as that is grounded in Jesus Christ, would likewise be filial and relational; as such our relationships with others would likewise be relational and dynamic in this way. How that actually looks has some sense of the mysterium Trinitatis associated with it; which is seemingly the way Kelsey is approaching this. It will be interesting to see how he works his understanding of God’s sovereignty out in these sorts of Trinitarian ways; not to mention, how that then cashes out when applied to ‘human anguish.’

 

1 David H. Kelsey, Human Anguish and God’s Power (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 140-41. 

The Christian God is not the Archimedean Point::The Christian God is ‘Son of the Father’

What happens when we think of God under the pressure provided for by Greek or ‘Hellenic’ categories; do we end up with the emphases we get of God when we think Him from His Self-revelation in Jesus Christ? David Kelsey describes how the Greeks informed early and even mediaeval grammars for thinking God thusly:

. . . The Triune God’s “oneness,’ [sic] ie, God’s unity and singularity, is explained in terms of one strand of the economy. God’s providential care of creation (which is entailed by God’s creative blessing). God’s “oneness” is the logically and ontologically necessary singularity of the cosmos’ “prime cause,” the arche, of providential care. In that singularity God is absolute and alone.

By that move, however, the “oneness” or singularity of the Triune God is not explained in terms of the further assertion of the singular God’s tri-unity. It is not explained in terms provided by affirmation of God’s three-foldness that is itself warranted by a different strand of the economy than creation-providence, viz., God’s relating in making and keeping liberative promises, specifically in all that Jesus Christ does and undergoes. A Trinitarian doctrine of God plays little or no role in the traditional explication of God’s providential care of creatures framed in terms of the cosmological arche. Instead, one element of a Trinitarian doctrine of God alone is framed in terms of the arche: the first “Person” of the Trinity, the “Father,” to whom relating to creatures in providential rule is ascribed, is characterized in terms of the concept of a cosmic arche. “Father”is used analogically to characterize God’s relation to the created cosmos, not to characterize the first “Person” of the Trinity’s eternal relation to the second “Person,” the “Son.” The “Father” relates to all else as creator in the way the cosmic arche relates to all else. The “Father’ is the cosmic mon-arche, absolute and alone.1

My oft critique of classical Calvinism, and other classical theisms, mutatis mutandis, gets to the very point that Kelsey above is highlighting for us. When the material deployed for thinking God is unduly evangelized, and thus remains in its pagan mode, what we end up with is a projected god; a god of the ‘hills and the valleys.’ When we follow this line of grammarizing God we sublate the God of Self-revelation in Christ by the god constructed through the fertile imaginations of the philosophers. God becomes a syncretization, and thus the no-God of the philosophers. God in this instance, when an attempt is made to synthesize Him with the Hellenic grammar, becomes the arche, the literal Archimedean point by which the abstract human knower might make sense of an otherwise chaotic cosmos. The “Father,” when sublimated by the arche, becomes an Odin (Thor’s father) rather than a loving lover who is in intimate relationship with His Son in the bond of the Holy Spirit.

And yet, tragically, this is exactly who most Western Christians know God to be. A brute beginning-point that explains how the world comes to have order. But this isn’t the God the Christian knows as Father; that is if the Christian is under sound dogmatic thinking. The Christian isn’t looking for an explanation with reference to the source of order in the world, per se. Indeed, the Christian, prior to becoming a Christian, or a fetus for that matter, isn’t looking for anything other than themselves, as the case may be. It took the Father’s and the Son’s loving and unilateral initiative to freely elect fallen humanity’s status, in the humanity of the Son, so that the would-be Christian might actually become a Christian. And this is to the point: the first order need of this fallen world, and the fallen humanity therein, is for a re-freshed, indeed, a re-created relationship with the God who is first Father of the Son, rather than with a God who is Creator, per se. The fact that God is creator isn’t simply a brute fact in regard to who God is. Who God is, is first Son of the Father (as Athanasius says so eloquently2) by the Holy Spirit; and it is out of this overflow, of a life defined by the Other that God graciously creates. He doesn’t create because He is simply the arche; He creates because He is the Triune God of eternal filiation.

Until classical Calvinism, and other iterations of the various classical theisms on offer, come to recognize this basic point in a doctrine of God, they will continue to offer a notion of God, and thus ‘spirituality,’ that is less than the genuine God of Christ offers. This has been a mantra of mine for a decade and a half now online. One wonders if this mantra will ever make headway with the machina. The machina I am referring to is with reference to the theologians, and thus theologies, that insist that forwarding a Christian Aristotelianism as the only orthodox way for the Protestant revolution. But this surely cannot, and has not been the case. The machina thinks from a revisionist understanding of the history of Christian ideas. There have always been theologians, who have thought God in filial rather than arche terms. The Nicene theologians, by-and-large sought to evangelize the Greeks to the point that the Greeks only became a pre-text by which the re-text of God’s life for us in the re-created humanity of Jesus Christ subverted the no-God the philosophers fabricated in their own virtuoso reflections.

 

1 David H. Kelsey, Human Anguish and God’s Power (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 114-15. 

2 Athanasius, Contra Arianos 1.9.34. 

The classical Calvinist God Behind the Back of Jesus: And the Barthian-Torrancean Return to Nicaea

Classical Calvinism has taken shape, by and large, by its appropriation of Aristotelian substance metaphysics. Their respective doctrine of God is based in the Hellenic actus purus tradition of philosophical conniving. Their understanding of a God-world relation is grounded in the decretum absolutum (‘absolute decree’ —double predestination). They think God, by and large, from an analogia entis (‘analogy of being’) speculative mode of reasoning that takes its seasoning not from God’s Self-revelation, as the preamble, but instead from the wily machinations of the philosophers. This produces a notion of godness that understands God in terms of a metaphysical jurist who engages with the created order, including with the apple of creation, human beings, via mechanistic and law-like precision. As a result, the classical Calvinists thinks salvation in terms of a Federal (covenantal) schema.

Here Paul Molnar explicates TF Torrance’s critique of Federal theology:

Torrance’s objections to aspects of the “Westminster theology” should be seen together with his objection to “Federal Theology”. His main objection to Federal theology is to the ideas that Christ died only for the elect and not for the whole human race and that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law. The ultimate difficulty here that one could “trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s beloved Son, as in a federal concept of pre-destination, [and this] tended to foster a hidden Nestorian dualism between the divine and human natures in the on Person of Jesus Christ, and thus even to provide ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love” (Scottish Theology, p. 133). This then allowed people to read back into “God’s saving purpose” the idea that “in the end some people will not actually be saved”, thus limiting the scope of God’s grace (p. 134). And Torrance believed they reached their conclusions precisely because they allowed the law rather than the Gospel to shape their thinking about our covenant relations with God fulfilled in Christ’s atonement. Torrance noted that the framework of Westminster theology “derived from seventeenth-century federal theology formulated in sharp contrast to the highly rationalised conception of a sacramental universe of Roman theology, but combined with a similar way of thinking in terms of primary and secondary causes (reached through various stages of grace leading to union with Christ), which reversed the teaching of Calvin that it is through union with Christ first that we participate in all his benefits” (Scottish Theology, p. 128). This gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “a very legalistic and constitutional character in which theological statements were formalised at times with ‘almost frigidly logical definiton’” (pp. 128-9). Torrance’s main objection to the federal view of the covenant was that it allowed its theology to be dictated on grounds other than the grace of God attested in Scripture and was then allowed to dictate in a legalistic way God’s actions in his Word and Spirit, thus undermining ultimately the freedom of grace and the assurance of salvation that could only be had by seeing that our regenerated lives were hidden with Christ in God. Torrance thought of the Federal theologians as embracing a kind of “biblical nominalism” because “biblical sentences tend to be adduced out of their context and to be interpreted arbitrarily and singly in detachment from the spiritual ground and theological intention and content” (p. 129). Most importantly, they tended to give biblical statements, understood in this way, priority over “fundamental doctrines of the Gospel” with the result that “Westminster theology treats biblical statements as definitive propositions from which deductions are to be made, so that in their expression doctrines thus logically derived are given a categorical or canonical character” (p. 129). For Torrance, these statements should have been treated, as in the Scots Confession, in an “open-structured” way, “pointing away from themselves to divine truth which by its nature cannot be contained in finite forms of speech and thought, although it may be mediated through them” (pp. 129-30). Among other things, Torrance believed that the Westminster approach led them to weaken the importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity because their concept of God fored without reference to who God is in revelation led them ultimately to a different God than the God of classical Nicene theology (p. 131). For Barth’s assessment of Federal theology, which is quite similar to Torrance’s in a number of ways, see CD IV/1, pp. 54-66.1

Molnar, a Roman Catholic, ironically, but a TF Torrance scholar par excellence, offers a very nice precis of Torrance’s critique of what I call classical Calvinism. As Molnar intimates at the end of his sketch, Barth similar to Torrance sees Federal theology as an abstract framework thinking God, and a God-world relation, precisely because God’s ostensible relation to the world, in that system, is not thought from God’s second person in Jesus Christ, but instead from an ad hoc absolute decree that has nothing to do with God’s person. Instead, this ‘decree’ is purely formed out of a need to keep the classical Calvinist God of pure being impassible and immutable; in other words, it allows God to remain immovable, and at the same time ostensibly presents a way for this unmoved God to interact with the created order. This is why Torrance, in loud contest, makes his strong claim that ‘there is no God behind the back of Jesus.’ He is referring to the decretum absolutum of classical Calvinism. He is referring to the classical Calvinist nominalist like version of a potentia absoluta / potentia ordinata dualistic conception of God wherein there is no necessary correlation between the God of the economy ad extra, and the God of the ontology ad intra; that there is no necessary relation between the God of the eternal processions, and the temporal missions.

At the end of the day, classical Calvinism doesn’t offer a relational, and thus trinitarian notion of God. I contend that classical Calvinism has actually departed from the Nicene faith of someone like Athanasius, and instead has reverted back to an absolutely Hellenic conception of God like we might find with the some of the homoiousions like Eusebius of Caesarea. This is the fallout produced by redevising a philosophical conception of God rather than one that is principially grounded in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; the Son of the Father. Whey a system’s doctrine of God goes awry, when it strays from the reality of Holy Scripture, and imposes foreign categories upon Scripture’s res we end up with a less than desirable conception of God; not to mention how that impacts a doctrine of salvation, and the spirituality produced therefrom.

The classical Calvinists will continue on though; they are like a machine. They fear modernity, that is until it comes to socio-political theories; that’s another story for another day. But the irony is that modernity, for all the demon-possession classical Calvinists see therein, has, in the right hands, liberated scholasticism Reformed from its overly philosophical and Aristotelian romances, and allowed those with eyes to see and ears to here to return to Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon. Solo Christo / Soli Deo Gloria

The Augustinian-Dualism of Leighton Flowers’ Provisionism

Leighton Flowers of YouTube fame, with reference to his anti-Calvinist soteriological position known as Provisionism, asserts that his theological framework is genuinely ‘Christocentric,’ whereas his counterparts in classical Calvinism are not. The irony of this is too hard to ignore for me. Flowers’ premise is as follows: he believes that classical Calvinists’ theistic determinism keeps them from operating from a genuinely Christocentric approach because instead they think from a God who deterministically causes all things to obtain through decrees. What you will notice with this premise, for Flowers, in this sort of deterministic God-world relation, is that a foreign God (juxtaposed with the one ‘revealed’ in Holy Scripture) is operative for the Calvinist. That in the Calvinist depiction, according to Flowers, all of reality is steamrolled (and thus flattened) to such an extent that there can be no genuine, or responsive relationship possible between God and humanity. As such, for Flowers, the Calvinist is merely playing an automaton role in the Puppet-Master’s hand to the extent that it is ALL God (and thus the Calvinists’ definition of Divine Sovereignty, according to Flowers), and nothing of humanity.

His alternative theory of salvation is what, indeed, he calls Provisionism. His nomenclature, language he coined himself, is intended to signify the expansive nature of God’s love for all of humanity; to the point that, according to Flowers, God in Christ died for all of humanity (us Evangelical Calvinists don’t disagree with him on this point), thus ‘providing’ provision for all who will. But then he goes awry. He posits, in contradistinction to classical Calvinism, that human beings simpliciter are born with a God-given capacity to say Yes or No to God’s provision of salvation to whomever will. He rejects the notion of original sin, which he strictly relegates to an Augustinian invention, and instead theorizes that humanity, even after the Fall has retained an affective-intellectualist capaciousness that allows humans, from within themselves to deliberate whether or not they want to accept the Gospel offer once confronted with it. Flowers maintains that his theory of salvation is genuinely “Christocentric” purely because God in Christ has made provision through unlimited atonement for all of humanity. But this isn’t sufficiently Christocentric; not to the point that Flowers can sustain his assertion that his is a genuinely Christocentric soteriology in contraposition to his counter-locutors, the “Calvinists.”

You see, Flowers’, and this is the irony, is still operating from what us Evangelical Calvinists would identify as a dualistic-Augustinian frame of reference. This type of dualism operates, necessarily so, from a competitive frame of reference vis-à-vis a God-human relation. In other words, just as Flowers (rightly) critiques the classical Calvinist for thinking God from a brute-sovereignist understanding (what I would identify with the decretum absolutum), he simply thinks from the obverse of this. That is, his theory thinks of humanity, in relationship to God in Christ, in just as abstract terms as does the classical Calvinist. It is just that he locates this abstraction in a liberum arbitrium (i.e., an isolated or independent human freewill) rather than in the decretrum absolutum (absolute decree) of the Calvinists. But both approaches, respectively, have not thought a God-human relation through a principial doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. That is to say, neither the Provisionists nor the classical Calvinists think a God-human relation through the lens offered by the Chalcedonian patterning provided for by the patristic homoousion.

This is where the Evangelical Calvinists offer a genuinely Christ-conditioned alternative to the whole of the sort of Augustinian-laced dualisms that both the Provisionists and classical Calvinists, respectively, suffer from. As Evangelical Calvinists we think from a non-dualist non-competitive frame (so my Athanasian Reformed label) wherein we posit salvific theory from the hypostatic-union and consubstantial realities of the Divine and human coming into an inseparable union in the singular person of Jesus Christ. This means that, after Thomas F. Torrance et al., we think from the homoousial reality of a Godward to human / humanward to God movement as the actualization of God’s grace for all of humanity; particularly as ‘all of humanity’ (in actualistic terms, which is very important to press) is indeed Christ’s archetypal humanity. In other words, for the Evangelical Calvinist, salvation (or re-conciliation) obtains in the Incarnation&Atonement of God as that is realized/acutalized in the Theanthropos person of Jesus Christ. For the Evangelical Calvinist, Jesus is God’s salvation realized for the world. Not in a ‘corporate’ or hypothetical sense (as the Provisionists tacitly want to maintain), but in an actualized sense, such that all of humanity has indeed been redeemed and atoned for in Jesus Christ; just because He is God’s humanity for the world. This presents apparent dilemmas for some, like they think the reduction of this necessarily leads to Christian universalism, but they would be wrong (this can be addressed at a later time).

Conclusion

I think Flowers has good intentions, but he doesn’t have the theological resources to offer a genuinely Christocentric approach towards a theory of salvation. He is still operating out of the Latin or Augustinian frame of reference that he says he is critiquing. He still thinks of salvation from dualist optics wherein humanity still stands abstract or aloof from God; that is until they may or may not actualize the offer of salvation that God in Christ has left hanging over humanity’s head to do with as they will. Flowers’ alternative is merely, as noted, the obverse of the classical Calvinist offering insofar as he thinks about humanity in abstraction from Christ’s humanity; he simply thinks this abstraction from what he calls libertarian freewill (rather than from the Calvinists thinking that equally thinks in abstraction, but from the absolute decree instead). This is the irony of Flowers’ alternative. He thinks he is offering a genuine solution to the theological dilemmas offered by the classical Calvinist decretum absolutum, but in point of fact he is only forwarding the same Augustinian dualist and God-human competitive relationship that he had hoped to conquer. There is a better way; a genuinely Christ-conditioned way that thinks a God-human relation from the hypostatic-union of God and humanity in and from the singular person of Jesus Christ.

Barth’s Nein to the Two-Powers of God: ‘No God Behind the Back of Jesus’

Barth is just finishing up a really strong critique of nominalism, and the two powers of God theology (potentia absoluta/ordinata) of late medievalism. I will not detail what nominalism entails in regard to its theory on God’s two powers, other than to say that it presents a real rupture between who God might be in His inner life (in se) and who He is seen to be in His outer life (ad extra) in the economy of salvation history. It is this type of thinking that brings Thomas Torrance to assert: ‘There is no God behind the back of Jesus.’ Barth writes:

God and God alone has real power, all the real power. This is the statement of the Christian knowledge of God. The alternative that all the real power that we encounter (what we think real) is God’s power is the statement of a blind deification of nature or history or fate, and finally of man himself. The identification of God’s omnipotence with His actual omnicausality drives us to this deification, which is more or less concealed in it. That is why it is to be rejected. Certainly all true reality is based on God’s omnipotence as the only true possibility. But what this true reality is, and therefore what may and must be the occasion and object for our glorification of the divine omnipotence. If we do not know this distinction and therefore the omnipotence proper to God, we have no protection against the temptation which constantly threatens to bestow our praise of God’s omnipotence, and the awe and trust which we owe it, on one or other of the powers of falsehood and apostasy which are to be understood only as impossibilities, as powers of impotence; or on the epitome of all such impossibilities, the power of the devil.[1]

We see Barth’s themes of reprobation, and anti-natural theology most evidently in what he writes contra the nominalst god. In agreement with Barth Jesus says to both Philip and Thomas, respectively:

If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. –John 14:7-11

In other words, we shouldn’t make a distinction between God’s inner/outer life, other than recognizing that the former is antecedent to the latter; that when we see the Son enfleshed, we see the whole triune God on display in His person and works. This is what Barth is ultimately saying, albeit while interacting with a foreign philosophy that has been imposed upon the Christian God. And yet what Barth is responding to in his day, still remains just as pernicious of a reality today. Reformed theologians, along with some Lutherans and others, are attempting to retrieve nominalist and then realist Aristotelian conceptions of God that present us with a God who has this sort of rupture between His inner and outer life. Thus, when we attempt to think God in these ways, the ways that Barth and Jesus rightly rebuke, we think God from our own speculative determinations about who God must be; we separate His works from His person, and then attempt to synthesize those with the power of our own wits. Quite tragic.


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 §31: Study Edition Vol 9 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 96.

The Genuinely Protestant Way For Thinking God: From the ‘spirit’ of the Protestant ‘Scripture Principle’

I have eschewed what many call classical theism for years. Classical theism is modern nomenclature used to symbolize or capture conceptual matter about God that was developed via antiqua (or in the antique or ancient way); primarily, in the mediaeval period. The Protestant side of this equation, well the contemporary mainstream of Reformed theology side, believes that the Protestant Reformation was about re-iterating the grammar for speaking God that was developed in Nicene theology. One of these proponents recently asserted the following on Twitter: “Classical theism is Nicene theism. Classical theism is Reformed catholic theism.”[1] What this sloppily does, though, is keep people from recognizing that ‘Reformed catholicism’ is actually a species, not of Patristic theology, but Mediaeval. Late mediaveal theology was infused with Thomist or Scotist categories (mostly Thomist in the mainstream) for thinking God. This is typically what classical theism, as nomenclature, is in reference to: i.e. Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis of Catholic Christian theology with Aristotelian speculative categories about infinity, immutability, impassibility, eternality, so on and so forth. Nicene theism did not have these categories available, per se (and I mean in the Aristotelian form that Thomas did); if anything, they deployed Platonic categories and grammar for attempting to speak rightly about God and Jesus Christ. And Nicene theism worked hard at ‘evangelizing the metaphysic’ they were using, whereas Thomas’ theology ostensibly gives way to speculating and thinking discursively/philosophically about God. These so called “theisms” are not univocal realities; they are equivocal when we think more critically than the above tweet allows for.

Karl Barth, in my view, rightly grounds all knowledge of God in Jesus Christ; as anybody who reads here knows by now. Whatever aspect of God we are attempting to think into, whether that be immanently or economically, as Barth rightly emphasizes, this must be radically done from Jesus Christ. If we are going to think biblically about God, we are limited to what the canonical Scriptures disclose about God. As TF Torrance rightly notes of Barth’s approach:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[2]

It is this approach that Nicene theism sought to honor, more so than did Mediaeval theism in my view. By time we get to Mediaeval or ‘Reformed catholicism’ theism, there have been accretions about God that have developed, not from revelation, but from the speculative philosophical tradition that the mediaeval theology was enmeshed within. Barth repudiates this sort of intertwining of thinking God from discursion, and attempts to think God, instead, only as God has revealed Himself for us in Jesus Christ. Here is how this cashes out when Barth is thinking God’s immanent frame and freedom to be God:

If the freedom of divine immanence is sought and supposedly found apart from Jesus Christ, it can signify in practice only our enslavement to a false god. For this reason Jesus Christ alone must be preached to the heathen as the immanent God, and the Church must be severely vigilant to see that it expects everything from Jesus Christ, and from Jesus Christ everything, that He is unceasingly recognised as the way, the truth, and the life (Jn. 14.6). This attitude does not imply Christian absolutism or ecclesiastical narrowmindedness, because it is precisely in Jesus Christ, but also exclusively in Him, that the abundance and plenitude of divine immanence is included and revealed. If we do not have Christ, we do not have at all, but utterly lack, the fulness of God’s presence. If we separate ourselves from Him, we are not even on the way to this richness, but are slipping back into an impoverishment in which the omnipresent God is not known. The freedom of God must be recognised as His own freedom and this means—as it consists in God and as God has exercised it. But in God it consists in His Son Jesus Christ, and it is in Him that God has exercised it. In all its possibilities and shapes it remains the freedom which consists and is exercised in Jesus Christ. If we recognise and magnify it, we cannot come from any other starting-point but Him or move any other goal.[3]

This is a great example of how, thematically, Barth attempts to think God all the way up, and back down, from Christ alone. For him, to attempt to think God under the pressures present in ‘Reformed catholic theism’ is to think of an idol rather than God. It isn’t that I think that Barth doesn’t think that these mediaeval Christians weren’t in contact with God, or that they didn’t have good intentions; or that they weren’t working with the crumbs they had to work with. It is just that, in my view, I think Barth was critiquing what ended up being materially produced by the philosophical crumbs these ancient theologians had to work with. I agree with Barth, of course. Even in Barth, though, we do see traces of an Aristotelian, or even a Thomist aspect, towards thinking God, insofar as these traces, at a methodological level were grounded in an a posteriori mode of thinking God rather than a priori. So, even in Barth, and the mediaeval tradition, there are needles that need to be picked through in order to recognize that there is oft fluidity from one period of theological development to another. Even so, Barth’s approach ends up being radically Christ concentrated in a way, that at the end of the day, is massively divergent from the mediaevals; even if there seems to be incorporations here and there, from them, in his who theological oeuvre.

I don’t think the Tweeter, from above, is right. Indeed, I think that what the spirit of Protestantism entails, is that we are slavishly tied to doing theology from the categories and impulses disclosed and borne witness to in Holy Scripture (contra the Great Tradition, when that tradition slips into speculative theology, which it does frequently). I think Jesus Christ is God without remainder for us (pro nobis). Philip Ziegler, refers to Luther for us: “such considerations which inquire into something still higher, above and beyond the revealed God, are of the devil through and through; nothing is attained through them, save that we plunge ourselves into unhappiness because they present us with an unfathomable object, namely the non-revealed God.”[4] This is the spirit Barth operates within; within the proto-Protestant’s, Luther’s. This is the spirit that I believe Reformed theology ought to operate within; not the letter we see the Tweeter operating within. As a Protestant Christian, as Barth was, I too am radically committed to following the narrative disclosure and reality of Scripture; some have called this ‘the Scripture Principle,’ but then immediately erred from that principle by allowing discursive thinking about God to displace this principle.

The aforementioned is my style of Christianity. It is how I live my daily walk as a Christian. I don’t think God by speculative means. When I look up at the stars and moon, I don’t think of an abstract Creator God; I think of the God who would be known as Father of the Son, rather than by His works (to paraphrase, Athanasius). I think the person and works of God at once in the singular person of Jesus Christ. When my mind wants to wander off into the far country, and think God from there, I meet Jesus there instead; and He brings me back home to think God from His Right Hand. Nicene theism might be ‘classical theism,’ but it isn’t ‘Reformed catholic theism’ that is its re-iteration; nein, if anything, it is the genuinely Protestant theology of Barth that stays economically grounded in the text of Holy Writ. This is the Protestant way, and I commend it to you.

[1] Anonymous Tweeter, accessed 04-14-2020 @0219.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 §28 The Doctrine of God: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 64.

[4] Martin Luther, 1535 Lectures on Genesis, cited by Philip G. Ziegler, Doing Theology When God is Forgotten: The Theological Achievement of Wolf Krötke (New York/Berlin: Peter Lang, 2007), 45.

Gnesio Protestantism: Living and Breathing in the ‘spirit’ of Luther’s Reformation

 

Let me propose a different way to think about being Protestant. Often this way is referred to as Radical Protestantism, at least in its modern dress. But what I am referring to is both radical and Gnesio. Both terms, radical and gnesio can be closely related and mutually informing, one of the other. The former comes from the Latin root word radix, which means: ‘root.’ The latter, Gnesio, or γνήσιος in the Greek, means: ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic.’ If you’re familiar with Protestant history, you will recognize this term in reference to the so called Gnesio-Lutherans versus the Philippists. This was an internecine splintering within and among the followers of Luther, post his death. The Gnesios believed they were in strict adherence to Luther’s teachings, whereas the Philippists came to follow the teachings of Luther’s best friend and comrade, Philipp Melanchthon. The details of that rupture are interesting in their own right, but unnecessary to develop for our purposes. I simply want to riff on the language of Gnesio, in overlap with radix.

I have written on this issue numerous times before, but let me reiterate, because I think this issue is fundamentally important. I want to propose that there is actually a Gnesio Protestantism available in the history; that the spirit of Luther’s protesting work has been taken up by various theologians, and yet mostly quenched by the consensus of Protestant theologians. Ron Frost, a former historical theology professor of mine, a mentor of mine, and someone I did a teaching fellowship for, introduced me to this line of thinking eighteen years ago. Let me refer you to something (at length), that Frost wrote (for Trinity Journal, Fall 1997), where he pinpoints what he refers to as a ‘stillborn’ reformation:

Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?

What was it that stirred Martin Luther to take up a reformer’s mantle? Was it John Tetzel’s fund-raising through the sale of indulgences? The posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in October, 1517, did, indeed, stir the public at large. But Luther’s main complaint was located elsewhere. He offered his real concern in a response to the Diatribe Concerning Free Will by Desiderius Erasmus:

I give you [Erasmus] hearty praise and commendation on this further account-that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous [alienis] issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like-trifles rather than issues-in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.

The concern of this article, then, is to go behind the popular perceptions-the “trifles”-of Luther’s early activism in order to identify and examine this “hinge on which all turns.”

What was this vital spot? Luther was reacting to the assimilation of Aristotle’s ethics within the various permutations of scholastic theology that prevailed in his day. Indeed, Luther’s arguments against Aristotle’s presence in Christian theology are to be found in most of his early works, a matter that calls for careful attention in light of recent scholarship that either overlooks or dismisses Luther’s most explicit concerns.

In particular, historical theologian Richard A. Muller has been the most vigorous proponent in a movement among some Reformation-era scholars that affirms the works of seventeenth century Protestant scholasticism-or Protestant Orthodoxy-as the first satisfactory culmination, if not the epitome, of the Reformation as a whole. Muller assumes that the best modern Protestant theology has been shaped by Aristotelian methods and rigor that supported the emerging structure and coherence of Protestant systematic theology. He argues, for instance, that any proper understanding of the Reformation must be made within the framework of a synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotle’s methods:

It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers…. It is also an error to discuss [it] without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages…. the Reformation … is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed as it were by the five-hundred-year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism.

The implications of Muller’s affirmations may be easily missed. In order to alert readers to the intended significance of the present article at least two points should be made. First, Muller seems to shift the touchstone status for measuring orthodox theology from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas. That is, he makes the Thomistic assimilation of Aristotle-which set up the theological environment of the late middle ages-the staging point for all that follows in orthodox doctrine. It thus promotes a continuity between Aquinas and Reformed theology within certain critical limits3-and this despite the fact that virtually all of the major figures of the early Reformation, and Luther most of all, looked back to Augustine as the most trustworthy interpreter of biblical theology after the apostolic era. Thus citations of Augustine were a constant refrain by Luther and John Calvin, among many others, as evidence of a purer theology than that which emerged from Aquinas and other medieval figures. Second, once a commitment to “Christian Aristotelianism” is affirmed, the use of “one or another of the Reformers” as resources “to characterize Protestant orthodoxy” sets up a paradigm by which key figures, such as Luther, can be marginalized because of their resistance to doctrinal themes that emerge only through the influence of Aristotle in Christian thought.

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed-measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles-a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther-who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week-chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.” His solution was straightforward:

In this regard my advice would be that Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, Concerning the Soil, and Ethics which hitherto have been thought to be his best books, should be completely discarded along with all the rest of his books that boast about nature, although nothing can be learned from them either about nature or the Spirit.

This study will note, especially, three of Luther’s works, along with Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes Theologici. The first is Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, presented in the Fall of 1517, at least a month before he wrote his more famous Ninety-Five Theses. Second is his Heidelberg Disputation, which took place April 26,1518. The third is his Bondage of the Will-which we cited above written in 1525 as a response to Erasmus. Melanchthon’s Loci was published in 1521 as Luther was facing the Diet of Worms. A comparative review of Augustine’s responses to Pelagianism will also be offered.[1]

Luther’s whole project was one where a radical theology of the Word was at the forefront. He was confronting his sense of how Aristotle’s categories had malnourished, indeed, suffocated the reality of the Christian’s Freedom in the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. This was the ‘spirit’ of the gnesio Protestant Reformation, and one that was quickly snuffed out by the re-adoption of the Ramist and scholastic methodology deployed by the Post Reformation Reformed theologians, along with, ironically, the development of Lutheran orthodoxy. This meant a re-submission to the via antiqua (ancient way) of theological reflection, one informed by Aristotelian and overly metaphysicalized categories that are foreigners to the theology of the Word revealed in the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ.

At base or as a fundamentum, my proposal for a so called Gnesio Protestantism brings us back to the original ‘spirit’ of Luther’s reformational work. This would mean, and radically so, that much of the so called “Reformed” theology of the 16th and 17th centuries, insofar as it moved away from the spirit of Luther’s reformation, be abandoned. It is possible to identify a canonical thread from Luther onward, into the present; that is, it is possible to identify people who understood the spirit of Luther’s work, even in and through the 16th and 17th centuries, and onward, but it requires much work to excavate.

Personally, this is why I am so taken by the theology of Karl Barth. Barth more than anyone else that I have come across (even more than Thomas Torrance, who I love) imbibes the spirit of Luther’s Protestant Reformation. He reifies the sort of Christ concentration, and therefore, theology of the Word that I think Luther was all about! Barth’s theology has been politicized though. We must look beyond that. Barth’s theology has been diminished because of his relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum; Luther’s should be then, given his apparent anti-Semitism, in his mature years. But we don’t look to these men as absolutes in themselves, we look to the reality that they sought to bear witness to in their unique ways; we look to Jesus Christ, as He is the Word of God these theologians sought to amplify, even in the midst of their sinfulness. The ground and grammar of theology I will always plant my roots and words in is the Word of God that these types of theologians, in opposition to the consensus of theologians (whether they be Roman Catholic or Protestant orthodox), attempted to bear witness to for the world to see and handle and touch.

I commend to you: Gnesio Protestantism. The genuine article Protestantism that has radical rootage in the living Word of God. A Protestantism that is one of dissent, not consent to the consensus. Do you understand this? The spirit of Protestantism, I take it, is one that is rooted in the so called via moderna (modern way). It doesn’t have ground in the natural order of things, like a stable conception of a historical Church, but its ground is in the other worldliness of the heavenly Kingdom; one that is mediated to us by the Pure Grace of God who is Jesus Christ! There is no natural or historical iteration, in my view of the spirit of Protestantism, that can serve as a bastion of stability and authority for the Christian person; only Jesus Christ, as He in-breaks into our lives, moment by moment, afresh and anew, can be that / can do that. Recanto! you say? Nein! ‘Here I stand, I can do no other!’[2]

 

[1] Ron Frost, “Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal 18:2 (Fall 1997): 223-24 [emphasis mine].

[2] You might be thinking, ‘man, Bobby, drama much?’ Indeed, I’ll both live and die in this drama. Soli Deo Gloria.

Jesus, The Only Way To Know God Without Remainder

One of the most liberating things I have come to discover is that I cannot prove God’s existence. This does not mean I cannot gesture towards the intelligibility of believing in the existence of God versus not. But it does mean that that is only a gesturing; at the very most, to squash intellectual attempts to discount that belief in God, in all cases, is untenable and irrational (as atheists and agnostics assert most frequently). But beyond this, the better way is to simply refer to revelation claims about God. For the Christian it is best to refer to Jesus Christ in order to come to the conclusion that the eternal God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is. Indeed, as Karl Barth presses, even the notion that God is incomprehensible, simply is a negation based upon reference to the human being. Barth argues that this, while a laudable notion, ought to be rejected in toto. In his discussion he refers to some Patristics, Thomas Aquinas, and the scholastic Reformed et al. He recognizes that something like Aquinas’s idea of God ‘being a being beyond being’ is a laudable belief, but that it doesn’t go far enough; because even that idea has grounding in the human imagination rather than what is revealed about God by God.

In a more pointed discussion, Barth engages with Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God; but he takes it in another direction. Barth acknowledges that Anselm is onto something significant, but then applies Anselm’s dictum that “to comprehend more rationally that God is incomprehensible,” in a way that runs the idea of incomprehensibility to its logical reductio; that is, unless God had freely chosen to reveal Himself to and for the world in Christ, that God is so far beyond there could be no actual concept of the Christian God. This is an important insight, since it takes away the philosopher’s (and thus those theologians who rely on the philosophers) ability to assert that they have discovered a concept of godness apart from God’s own Self-revelation. In other words, Barth’s work makes all knowledge of God fully and exhaustively contingent upon God’s free choice and election to be with and for us rather than against us. Barth writes:

If we now ask why this is so, we must be careful not to be tempted by the older theology on to the paths of general considerations, which will help us to understand the incomprehensibility of the supreme being in the sense of Plato and Plotinus or even Kant, but not the incomprehensibility of God. Or rather, we shall have to divest of their original character the perhaps inevitable elements of a generally “metaphysical” language structure, giving them a clear theological sense by placing them in the theological context. We must not, therefore, base the hiddenness of God on the inapprehensibility of the infinite, the absolute, that which exists in and of itself, etc. For all this in itself and as such (whether it is or not, and whatever it may be) is the product of human reason in spite of and in its supposed inapprehesibility. It is not, therefore, identical with God and is no way a constituent part of the divine hiddenness. What we shall have to say is that God is not a being whom we can spiritually appropriate. The pictures in which we view God, the thoughts in which we think Him, the words with which we can define Him, are in themselves unfitted to this object and thus inappropriate to express and affirm the knowledge of Him. For God—the living God who encounters us in Jesus Christ—is not such a one as can be appropriated by us in our own capacity. He is the One who will appropriate us, and in so doing permit and command and therefore adapt us to appropriate Him as well. It is because the fellowship between God and us is established and continues by God’s grace that God is hidden from us. All our efforts to apprehend Him by ourselves shipwreck on this. He is always the One who will first and foremost apprehend and posses us. It is only on the basis of this, and in the area marked out by it, that there can and should be our own apprehension of God.

It is the case that we resemble what we can apprehend. Thus we certainly resemble the world and everything in it. For with the world we are created by God. And for this reason we can form views and concepts of the world and what is in it. But we do not resemble God. The fact that we are created in the likeness of God means that God has determined us to bear witness to His existence in our existence. But it does not mean that we possess and discover an attribute within ourselves on the basis of which we are on a level with God. When the serpent insinuated this to the first man, Adam missed his true determination and fell into sin. Because, therefore, we do not find in ourselves anything which resembles God, we cannot apprehend Him by ourselves.[1]

The last paragraph from Barth gets us into the issue of the so called analogia entis; or the idea that human being has within itself a ‘natural’ capacity to think godness from negating itself back to God in a hierarchy of being. We might want to label this approach: theoanthropological Pelagianism. And yet this is the primary mode most of Western theology develops from; i.e. the idea that we can think God from a place in ourselves. We have referred to this recently in my post on Thomist Intellectualism, and how that impacts the way theologians have constructed an ostensible theological anthropology. The fact that most theologians cannot see the blatant Pelagian notion of nature/grace in their underlying theories of revelation is astonishing to me. But this makes some sense, as Barth notes in earlier discussion, that natural theology is so embedded into the fabric of what it means to be human and Christian, among these theologians, that it is akin to denying oneself, and their own sanity, if they were to deny that natural theology just is the only real possibility for the undertaking of the theological and Christian task.

The bottom line for me is this: Jesus Christ is Deus absconditus (the hidden God) made Deus revelatus (the revealed God) pro nobis (for us). There is no real notion of the Christian God without this revelation; there is no God before, behind, or after the God revealed in Jesus Christ; that is: for the Christian. Jesus Christ, for the Christian, is the exclusive, without remainder, all nature and history delimiting reality whereby we either can know the true and living God, or not. This is, of course, a radical position; but it is a position that I think the Christian must follow if they are genuinely committed to the idea that we only know God by the Grace of resurrection and recreation that has occurred in the person and work of Jesus Christ for us. To assert that we can think God, or that even our notions of the ‘incomprehensible,’ as Barth has drawn our attention to, don’t even scratch the surface of the reality God; since God has seen fit to keep both the surface and depth of who He is grounded in Jesus Christ alone (solo Christo). The epistemological link between God and humanity is grounded in the ontological for us in the hypostatic union of God and humanity in the singular person of Jesus Christ.

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 The Doctrine of God: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 183.

Thinking God After God Not Before: A Critique Towards Apologetics Culture and Natural Theology

I recently wrote the following on Facebook: “When we argue for the existence of God apart from Christ, we end up with a God without Christ.” Let me unpack that a bit further by appealing to Douglas Campbell as he articulates this in his own way:

If Christians think that they can prove the existence of God acting in Jesus independently of God’s revelation of Godself, using some higher truth or argument or position that everyone acknowledges, they pay a heavy price. These attempts might be convincing to the faithful, but they tend to collapse under the withering scrutiny of modern philosophers.[1] And a culture that has been told loudly that God can be proved but has found that God cannot be proved then feels justified in turning decisively away from God. The only thing that seems to have been proved is that God does not exist. God is rejected as an unproved hypothesis without anyone confronting the place where that God has in fact chosen to become known, which is personally, in Jesus. A key result flowing from the pretension that we can judge the truth about God for ourselves has consequently been the creation of a culture that confidently affirms God’s impossibility and hard-heartedly resists the good news. We have reaped here what we have sown, and it is a bitter harvest.[2]

I think Campbell overstates things a bit, almost to the point of contradiction. He seems to declare that God cannot be proven, but then presumes that He may have been without proper grounding in Jesus Christ. In other words, he seems to be saying that philosophers might be able to prove a ‘god-concept,’ but that without principially grounding God’s reality in His Self-revelation in Jesus Christ, that the god-concept proven remains so abstract that in the end it has no real capacity to personally confront the people it is intended to touch most: i.e. skeptics. So, I think Campbell is saying: that even if God could be proven, that outwith its personal reality in the face of Jesus Christ, it goes nowhere, and thus, to use the language of Barth, gives us a No-God.

That said, in the main, I agree with Campbell in regard to the primary point he is attempting to drive home. He wants God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ, and nothing else, to be the exclusive place where people meet God; since this is the only place the triune God has chosen to show Himself to the world (and for the world). In order to develop this theme further, Campbell writes:

If we press on boldly with our foundationalist project, anxious that if our system collapses, then our faith does as well, we tend to end up—and arguably necessarily only ever end up—with “the god of the philosophers.” This is because when we construct our foundation, we are invariably deriving some universal principle or dynamic from our own reality as our truth criterion and extrapolating or developing it in a way that will hopefully lead us to God. This key principle will have to be something very broad and universal and abstract. It must be known by everyone. So we will be reflecting on the inner nature of all reality in terms of an essence, or on the sense that we often judge things to be beautiful or not, or on the inner logic of history, or some such. But our conclusions will then a long way away from the recognition that God was fully present in a Jewish person who was shamefully executed around 30 CE. We find and worship the God who is the essence of all reality or beauty or history or whatever else we managed to infer from, which is clearly rather different. And the further critical problem emerges.

By supposing that this is the way to the church’s truth, we then, in all good conscience, oppose those who try to approach it in other ways, including, and perhaps especially opposing, the poor people who simply claim that the crucified Jesus is Lord and attribute that claim to the Lord. (There is something offensive about this foolish claim to the fundamentally learned and intelligent approach of our alternative system.) We are defending the way to the truth, which is perforce the only way. Are we not in the last remaining lifeboat on a stormy secular sea? Moreover, we have probably invested so much time and effort in developing our magnificent system that we will be reluctant to abandon it, and if we think that our belief in God depends on this system, we will be very reluctant to abandon it. Perhaps our impressive careers within the institutions advocating this system even depend on our not abandoning it. But the end result of all this investment will be the determined obstruction of the very truth that we are supposed to be reaching—that God was fully present in Jesus and speaks this truth to the church in whatever way God wants to. Not only will our magnificent systems fail us then by proving untrue and generating atheism; they will block the way to the very objective that they are supposedly trying to establish. They will stand guard as authentic theologies barring the way to Jesus himself—a block that we have called the second horseman.[3]

If you know Barth, if you know TF Torrance, then what Campbell is iterating will sound very familiar to you. He is referring us to the so called ‘scandal of particularity.’ Philosophers prefer universal truths, a priori realities that they can discover, prior to attempting to get into particularities. Christian theologians, I will suggest strongly, ought to be about just the opposite. We are people of the Christ, as such we ought to prefer the particular reality of God’s Self-exegesis in Jesus Christ; we ought to prefer a posteriori reality as we are confronted with the flesh and blood of God in Christ on the cursed cross.

Christians are not those who are about building foundations, God does that for us in Christ (I Cor 3.11). We are a people who rest on the foundation God has given us in Him, and build and cultivate upon that gifted ground for us in Christ. So, we bear witness to the given reality of God’s free election to be for and with us in Jesus Christ. We aren’t about ‘proving’ God’s existence; we are about confessing His reality as that comes for us and the whole world in the incarnation. This doesn’t seem very “theological” to many in the guilds of the theological class, I’m sure. They have been trained to think analytically, scholastically, technically, and speculatively about God’s essence and reality. As such, given their vesting, it becomes indomitably difficult to engage in the sort of ‘repentant thinking’ that the Gospel itself requires. It may well sound much too pedestrian and uneducated to think God in the terms Campbell is describing, that is if you’ve spent ten years earning a PhD learning to think just the opposite about the ways of God.

In the end, if we follow the procedure that Campbell lays out, we will not end up ever thinking God apart from Christ; we will only think Him directly from Christ. This is the way of what I take to be a genuinely Christian mode for doing the theological work that the churches are in such dire need of. Youth are walking away from Christ, after spending years in youth groups, by the droves. They are often exposed to the apologetics culture in these churches, and yet this doesn’t hold up. If they are unable to confound their antagonist professor in the classroom, if they cannot sustain the arguments for God’s existence they have learned from their learned apologetics teachers (via the curriculum they may have been exposed to), then God may well be dead indeed for them. These are pressing and real life matters.

[1] Let me just say that I don’t fully agree with Campbell on this point. I think that in the realm of the philosophical theism can be proven versus atheism in regard to the existence of ‘godness.’ Even Campbell acknowledges this in a footnote, so his articulation up to this point can sound a little misleading. I don’t think God can be proven (in fact I think we need to be proven by Him), but I do think that as far as the philosophical realm goes, that generic theism, even on philosophical terms is more “provable” than is atheism; many philosophers agree with that these days.

[2] Douglas A. Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 40-1.

[3] Ibid., 41-2.

Deus ex Machina: Substance versus Relational Ontologies:: In Response to Swain

I want to briefly respond to Scott Swain, President and James Woodrow Hassell Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando. He recently tweeted the following:

PSA (with tears): If you are reading someone using the labels “substance ontology” and “relational ontology,” you may not be reading a very helpful discussion of “ontology.” 10:56 AM · Jan 23, 2020 @scottrswain[1]

I’m not exactly sure of the context Scott had in mind, but let me interject from my perspective in regard to the language he is referring to.

I often will refer to the language of ‘substance’ metaphysics in contrast to what Thomas F. Torrance calls ‘onto-relationality,’ with reference to his understanding of the inner triune life of God. Torrance’s language is attempting to identify the subject-in-being constituting reality inherent to the processions and persons of the triune life of God (aka: perichoresis); the emphasis is upon God’s personal relationality in Himself. This is in contrast to what we get with theologies that rely upon Aristotle, for example, wherein the focus of discussion is not on personalist or relational foci vis-à-vis God, but instead it orbits around categories like ‘qualities’ ‘quantities’ and even ‘substance’ as a crude concept for thinking what ‘pure being’ entails for the philosophers and theologians of antiquity.

In order to illustrate what I am referring to in regard to the ‘quality’ or ‘substance’ nature of God’s acts, and in particular, His acts toward humanity in the soteriological dynamic, let me refer us to Richard Muller’s definition of the Latin, gratia, and how that was understood among the scholastics Reformed of the 16th and 17th century Protestant theologians (many of them). This fits well in response to Swain, because Swain is unabashedly Thomist when it comes to his own sense of Protestant theological theology:

gratia….(3) Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…. (4)Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification. Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction between gratia cooperans and (5) gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith. This latter distinction arises most probably out of the distinction between sanctificatio (q.v.) and perseverantia (q.v.) in the scholastic ordo salutis (q.v.), or order of salvation….[2]

Even though ‘the Spirit’ is referenced, if you read closely, what you will recognize is that the Spirit isn’t the bond between the believer and the Lord. For folks like Swain, Muller et al., the Spirit ‘enables’[3] the elect person to trust God in Christ. Enablement language is simply swum past without a second thought by folks like Swain, as if this has no correspondence with thinking of God’s grace in terms of a quality rather than personally. But ‘enablement’ language requires that we think of God’s grace, and His relation to the elect person, in terms of an abstract quality or ‘substance’ or ‘created grace’ by which said person has been given the capacity to ‘cooperate’ with God in the covenantal transaction of salvation that Swain and other Federal theologians thinks is the case. In Muller’s definition above we get words like ‘disposition’ ‘capacity’ ‘enable’ just because grace has been thought in abstraction from the inner-triune and personal life of God rather than directly from it.

I just wanted to quickly respond to the idea that Swain was attempting marginalize. If people use ‘substance ontology’ or ‘relational ontology’ maybe, just maybe they are thinking from an alternative theological lexicon that is rightfully attempting to counter the majority report of the theologians of retrieval in the 21st century. To assert, though, that people who use such language are misguided, as Swain does, is misguided itself. But the critique seems to escape, Swain and his compadres. Richard Muller, as you read the body of his work, more than substantiates (pun intended) what Swain attempts to mitigate in regard to the conceptual reality symbolized by the language of ‘substance’ versus ‘relational.’ These things need more attention yet. I’m afraid that the stream Swain et al. swim in is becoming so strong, because it’s where they are swimming, that they are unable to appreciate the critique of their own ‘substance’ tradition; they simply take their stream as the ‘catholic’ stream for which there are no legitimate alternatives (other than Socinian types). But I still have never seen Swain et al actually come to terms with the critique they assert is misguided. He and they seem to operate within a Deus ex machina when it comes to conceiving of theological paradigms.

[1] Scott Swain, @scottrswain, accessed 01-24-20.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 129-30.

[3] H/t my mentor and former professor, Ron Frost, who turned me onto this critique through his own PhD work on Richard Sibbes, the scholastics Reformed, and the role that Aristotle and Thomas have played in the development of Western Catholic and Protestant theologies.