The Impact of the Greek Mind on the Christian Body: The Bread that Binds is the Broken Body of Christ Rather than the Broken Minds of Men

I wanted to press something I haven’t for awhile; the idea that operating from a genuinely Trinitarian doctrine of God means that we will think of a God-world relation (Creator/creature relation) in personalist-relational-filial terms rather than static and necessitarian. The continuous drive of young evangelical theologians to retrieve theology from the 16th and 17th centuries and the developments that happened in Post Reformation Reformed (PRR) Western Europe ends up giving us an understanding of God that fits better with a static and necessitarian understanding of God rather than the relational one that I contend explodes from the Trinitarian reality. Richard Muller calls the type of Christianity that developed in PRR: Christian Aristotelianism. It was Aristotle’s categories mediated through people like Thomas Aquinas and appropriated by post reformed orthodox Thomists wherein a God who looked more like the monad of Aristotle and Plato—a Pure Being—was produced rather than the relational God who would be understood through a properly exegeted understanding of God as Triune. Colin Gunton notes the developments, to a point, in this way:

This takes us to the second point, which is that along with the demystification of nature, there developed a doctrine of the contingency of the world. Greek thought, as Foster shows, tends to be necessitarian: it seeks for forms, that is, patterns in reality that have to be, and that remains essentially the case with Aristotle, for all his naturalism. (Recall that according to the Timaeus both form and matter are eternal, and therefore necessarily what they are.) Scientific enquiry on this understanding becomes the quest for logical rather than factual links between things. In contrast to this, the world that results from a free act of creation does not have to be: it is therefore contingent. This contrasts with most Greek thought, for which contingency is essentially problematic: it is irrational because not necessarily and eternally true. A form of Gnosticism recurs in this context: truth is not to be found in material things, because that is the realm of the contingent. Therefore truth has to be sought somewhere outside the material world, in something or some principles underlying (or overlying) it. On this account, ‘Objects are intelligible in so far as they are informed, sensible insofar as they are material.’ Contingency, and so materiality, is thus a defect of being. In contrast to this, in the words of T. F. Torrance, ‘contingent rationality’ is a quest for a rationality inhering in the order of space and time, not beyond it. This, it is claimed, is the unique gift of the Christian doctrine of creation. The material world is contingent but rational.[1]

I drew a line between late medieval theology, and Thomas’s impact, and the developments of Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy. It is difficult to generalize the period because it is made up of various characters and personages with just as various perspectives and theological conclusions. But in general, the style of classical theism the reformed orthodox appropriated, and developed, came with the Aristotelian tendencies; even if they wanted to affirm rather than deny (so Aristotle) creatio ex nihilo (‘creation out of nothing’). That’s what this discussion we are engaging with is about: viz. creation out of nothing, and the attendant understanding of contingency that follows.

My contention is that the theologies produced by the Post Reformed orthodox theologians were not altogether successful in emphasizing the freedom and thus requisite contingency that would attend such Divine freedom in a God-world relation. The consequent, one of them, is that the way people understand God’s relationship to the world, in the Christian Aristotelian model, is one wherein we end up with a Decretal God who relates to creation through decrees and the attending doctrine of causality (predeterminism that ends up making God in Christ in the incarnation a predicate of creation rather than its predicator; thus rupturing God’s person in Christ from his work in Christ). This continues to be an issue that plagues the current excavation work that people like Mike Allen and Scott Swain, among other young stalwarts, are engaged in at this very moment. Because folks like this ostensibly spy problems in modern theology they paradigmatically reject the idea that a fruitful or corrective understanding of a doctrine of God might be found there. They’d rather cast their lot with the so called tradition, and appeal to the natural theology required to make such an appeal.

At the end of the day I’m left wondering: what makes an idea about God orthodox? Is it really the period of ideation and development that said ideas developed within; and by whom? Or is there a greater regulative principle we ought to consider? What if Holy Scripture was in fact the norma normans and principium theologiae that so many of these younger evangelical theologians laudably affirm (as good Reformed thinkers). What if Scripture’s res (reality) was in fact the risen Christ, and the viva vox Dei (living voice of God) was in fact greater than the tradition that so many of these theologians appeal to as regulative for their own recovery projects? Some fear a Socinianism, a fallacious biblicism run amok, when they hear such words as mine. But what if the reality of Holy Scripture still speaks fresh and new words today, such that the tradition itself is called into relief when standing in the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ? What if theology has an eschatological character to it, such that theology itself is always only a proximate endeavor that requires renovation over and again as it is pressed up and further into the lively reality it claims to be speaking of (rather than about) and to?

These are the kinds of questions and issues that continue to drive me as a Christian thinker. I don’t see a lot of fresh work being done in the theological realm, per se. Instead I see a constant desire to re-iterize what has already been said, a desire to return to the ‘old paths’ to the golden age of a theological yesteryear that somehow eclipses the present and its ability to produce constructive theologies on their own terms in dialogue with the living voice of God in Holy Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ. This is not to suggest that the categories of the tradition do not offer valuable trajectories and insights, but it is to suggest that a repristination of these periods is of only relative value for the Christian churches catholic. The catholicizing reality that binds the church together is not tradition, but the risen Christ; as we proclaim his coming in eucharistic unity.

[1] Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical And Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), Loc 1581, 1587 kindle.

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Semper Reformanda-Always Reforming Regulated by the Eschatological Life of God For Us In Jesus Christ

See, I don’t agree with much of David Congdon’s conclusions (as he has continued to develop personally-dogmatically), but I do agree with him on the Christian reality being an eschatological reality and what that ought to do to the theological endeavor. What that ought to do is ground theological practice in the reality that God has spoken (Deus dixit) as that is given to and for us in the faith of Christ. It is as God reveals himself to us in the reconciliation of God and humanity in the man Christ Jesus that theology has place to happen. And it is in this combine that the eschatological becomes the domineering frame by which theology ought to find its orientation; an orientation that is always already outside of us, yet for us; it is in this ‘for us’ in the mediatorial and Priestly work of Jesus Christ that our knowledge of God is refreshed anew just as God’s mercies are new every morning great is his faithfulness.

We will see, as I quote Congdon at length, that Congdon’s explication is mediated through Rudolph Bultmann’s theology; but also with Barth’s presence felt. I am afraid that because of Congdon’s progressivism that people of a more conservative orientation (such as myself) will be put off, and won’t even give this analysis of things a listen. I’m hoping that people can appreciate how we can constructively appropriate theology from places that might seem antagonistic towards our general theological dispositions, and come to the realization that it is possible to reify theologies under more socio-conservative pressures (vis-à-vis the tradition); even while the theology (like Bultmann’s) being reified itself is a reification of the socio-traditional theologies of the 16th and 17th centuries in particular.

Here is how Congdon details the reality of faith, and how ‘the faith that is believed’ is grounded through ‘the faith by which we believe’; hopefully you will come to see how that impacts an eschatological understanding of the theological task—and for my interests, how that implicates a semper reformanda (always reforming) mode.

Glossary of Key Terms: Fides quae creditur (the faith that is believed) and fides qau creditur (the faith by which one believes)

At the other end of the spectrum lies orthodoxy, by which Bultmann primarily, though, not exclusively means the Protestant scholasticism that developed in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but persists  in the supernaturlistic reaction to rationalism and historicism. This alternative to liberal theology fares no better. To be sure, orthodoxy correctly grasps that “the object of theology is God as the object of faith, as the fides quae creditor,” and in this regard Bultmann stands with orthodoxy over against liberalism, a key fact often lost in the debate over his New Testament exegesis. But orthodoxy loses its object also in its misguided concern to secure a universally valid understanding of the Christian faith over against heterodoxy. The result is a “confusion . . . of kerygma and scientific theory” such that “a doctrine appears as the object of faith.” Orthodoxy makes the same error as liberalism but in an inverted way. Whereas liberalism sets itself (the fides qua) in place of the object (the fides quae), orthodoxy sets the object in place of itself. Either way, faith becomes faith in something human and objectifiable. Whereas liberalism makes history and experience into its object via the projection of the fides qua, orthodoxy reduces the divine fides quae to the level of rational human inquiry. The latter occurs “when it attempts to prove the faith (the fides quae creditor), whether by a natural theology or even from reason, or from an authority, such as scripture,” and “when it . . . requires assent to correct doctrine as to specific notions that are submitted to people from somewhere.” Orthodoxy is thus identical with (a) apologetics, the attempt to establish the object of faith as something one can acknowledge as true (assensus) prior to and apart from faith (fiducia), and (b) confessionalism, which sets up a test of conformity to certain doctrinal formulations as the condition belonging to the (true) Christian community. Each requires isolating the fides quae from the fides qua, so that the object of faith can be rationally verified and discussed as a human artifact.

If liberalism makes science of faith, orthodoxy makes a science of the kerygma. In both cases faith becomes a work, and theology becomes philosophy. What is lost in either case is God as the true object of theology. Theology is supposed to be the science of God, the logos of theos. But if God is an eschatological reality, then theology has to be an eschatological science. This has crucial implications for our understanding of the fides quae and the fides qua. It means, among other things, that the object of theology is not something “in hand” that can be fixed to a specific formula, a single authoritative interpretation: “God cannot be made into an object of our conduct. . . . God does not ‘hold still,’ as it were.” The eschatological being of God requires a strict differentiation between the kerygma, the fides quae, and theology: “Fides quae creditor = quod deus dixit! Theology = what human beings say.” Hermeneutically, therefore, an eschatological fides quae is never finalized and always open to new understandings, and that is because, ontologically speaking, the divine fides quae is transcendent and free, never at the disposal of any person or institution, whether church or state. It further means that the fides quae is not an object one can ascertain and understand prior to the mode of faith and obedience. The notion of “Christian apologetics” is an impossible contradiction; to give an apology for “God’ is to abandon talk of God. Science, as the general discipline that analyzes the ontological, cannot speak of God, who is the event of the ontic.

If God is eschatological, our only access to God must come from God’s own self. The fides quae creditor is “quod deus dixit,” what God has said. God must give Godself to us, must speak to us, in order for God to be known. And since such giving is inherently an act of grace—there being no separation between an intellectual self-giving and a salvific self-giving, since the latter is the former: the word of justification is the word of revelation—it follows that our only access to the fides quae is through faith in God as the Lord: “Should there be talk of God, it is of course clear that there can only be talk of God as the Lord, i.e., as the one who sends the moment and delivers God’s claim in it,” and thus “there can only be talk of God on the basis of God’s revelation, and revelation can only be heard in faith.” The fides quae only gives itself in and through the fides qua: “revelation is only revelation in actu and pro me.” And since the fides qua is given by the eschatological fides quae—since “faith is the answer to revelation”—it further follows that genuine faith is itself an eschatological event in that it is included within the singular eschatological event that is God; faith is an eschatological mode of relating to the eschatological. Concretely, this means that faith takes the form of love, in obedience to the “new commandment” of Jesus (John 13:34). The eschatological age inaugurated in Christ is “the new aeon of love . . . and life.” The eschatological science of theology is an eschatological praxis.[1]

There is hardly anything I find objectionable here. The only thing I would want to qualify is that I maintain a stable core of catholic orthodoxy even as that is continuously attenuated and “filled out” by the eschatological in-breaking of God’s life in and for the church, as that comes with a “fuller knowledge” of the living God; but not a knowledge that is dispossessed of the knowledge of God once for all delivered to saints (as that has been unfolding through the centuries). In other words, David doesn’t contain things enough; in my view. Congdon gives the impression that everything is “open,” and his developing personal dogmatic attests to that. What I affirm though is the eschatological nature of the faith; and that knowledge of God can only be grounded in God’s spoken Word (fides quae) as that is apprehended by the vicarious faith of Christ for us (fides qua). This is the basis, I contend, for a robust Reformed understanding of semper reformanda (‘always reforming’). God is not something we can handle, but someOne who handles and approaches us. In this, we have capacity to be confronted and given over to ‘repentant thinking’ such that our thoughts can be continuously reformed as that is regulated (regula fidei) indeed by the faith of Christ. Not something we own, but someOne we are owned by and learn of by constant confrontation of the living Word as the basis of our lived lives in and from the living God who is Triune, Immanuel.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 385-88.

No to the ‘Just Is’ God: Knowing God in Fulfillment Rather than Promise; Knowing God as Christians Rather than as Pre-Christian Christians

Classical theism, particularly of the medieval and post reformed orthodox (16th and 17th c.) style operates from a rather discursive notion of God. We might come to imagine that we just do know God; that is if we press our powers enough and rely heavily enough upon the yet unintroduced Holy Spirit in our lives. It is from this posture that many classical theists pick up their Bibles, at least of the Protestant sort, and just think that the God they have come to accept as their personal Lord (soli Deo gloria) starts out as God for them in Genesis 1:1 and linearly eventuates through the turns and eddies of salvation-history as the Savior they have met in Jesus Christ. It is upon this type of basis—as I have severely oversimplified it—that many classical theists operate from a just is assertive posture about God’s existence and their relative knowledge of this God (aided by the creative quality of grace each of the elect have in the accidents of their souls).

We have covered this ground on this blog a million times; I know! But I want to reiterate it again. I cannot get over how significant this is; viz. how we have knowledge of God, and which God we actually have knowledge of. If we get this most basic point wrong then everything else following will have the shape of how wrong we are or how right we are; in the sense that the God we believe we’ve come to know is actually the real and living God or not. What I am after—always—even as dramatic as I’ve just painted it has to do with prolegomena (or theological method and how that is given pre-Dogmatic shape by the God we believe we’ve come to know). Do creatures just have an implicit knowledge or sense of God; or is knowledge of God something completely and utterly and absolutely alien to us; is knowledge of God in its most intensive and principial modes something that is fully contingent upon God encountering us? More pointedly, is knowledge of God something that we can principally call Christian Knowledge of God?

Here is what I think (you know this): I only have come to know God, in my Christian experience and realization through the Son, Jesus Christ. As such my knowledge of God, even in the Old Testament, does not have an abstract character to it, instead it always already has a Christ conditioned character to it. My knowledge of God, as a Christian, never was generic; my knowledge of God has always been filled out by the illumination that has come from my position as a Christian in union with Christ (unio cum Christo). So I didn’t come to the God of the Old Testament without the Son; I’ve only come to God, as a Christian, within the fulfillment of the promises made about him as the new creation of God in the vicarious and mediatorial humanity he assumed in the incarnation. As such my knowledge of God is not from a hypothetical space as if I was born a Jew in the ancient near east; my knowledge of God, as a Christian, at a definitional and prescriptive level comes bound up in the man from Nazareth. If this is the case we have, what I would like to call, a ‘retroactive recognition’ and knowledge of God; meaning that as Christians we don’t read God linearly from Genesis 1:1, instead we read God starting in the reality of John 1:1 and understand God, even in the Old Testament, only as the Father of the Son and the Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit.

If the above is true then a just is knowledge of God, of the sort that we find in many classical theisms does not make sense as a genuinely Christian mode for knowledge of God. For the Christian, in principle, there has never been a generic starting point for knowledge of God; there has never been a time where we, as a Christian, would pick up the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible and think of God in any other terms as the Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit, as if we could think of God in a time before (in salvation-history terms) we first knew him as the God who first loved us in the Son, Christ, that we might love him. We wouldn’t have the motivation or care to read the Old Testament and think God in personal and relational terms without first having relationship with this God as the Father of the Son Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit. But this is the route so many classical theists of the classical type want us to take in our knowledge of God. I don’t want to take this route; I don’t think it’s consistent with my position as a Christian. In other words, my knowledge of God as a Christian is necessarily what it is precisely because I am a Christian. As such the knowledge of God I have access to is fully and contingent upon his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. As a Christian I don’t have another way, no churchly way, and no profane way of knowing God. God is either Self-explicated for us or he is explicated as is by us in abstraction from his Self-explication. There is no just is God; there is only the God for us that we know through Jesus Christ as the Son of the Father Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit. If this is so we can’t have a refracted knowledge of God that beams off of Scripture as if we meet God in the promises; no, our knowledge of God only comes to us in the fulfillment of the promises, in the seed of David, Jesus Christ. This does things to theological methodology, and subsequently to Christian spirituality.

‘God by nature is technically indifferent towards Creatures’: Worshipping the God of the Philosophers Rather than the God of the Bible

The Bible uses metaphors, analogies even, when referring to God. One of those, the one I think is most apropos for the topic of this post is: Rock. The idea of ‘rock’ connotes thoughts of immovability, hardness, strength, stability, security so on an so forth. The Christian classical theistic tradition likes to emphasize these realities about who God is—and rightfully so. But as we have covered so many times here there is a problem, from my perspective, with the metaphysic classical theism, by definition, has chosen. Before we go further it is important for me to qualify that I recognize that there are different instantiations of classical theism. That is to say, at some level all Christian theological tradition, particularly with reference to the development of a theology proper, must engage with some sort of metaphysical tradition; I am not a proponent of the thesis that anyone has actually achieved a post-metaphysical approach when engaging in theological endeavor. Further, whilst (I’m American so I use ‘whilst’ under advisement) metaphysics are necessarily the case for the theologian; some do better than others in ‘evangelizing metaphysics’ (h/t Peter Leithart for that phraseology). Recognizing that there is a certain continuity that has accrued in the Christian theological trad, I do not believe that this means that say medieval classical theistic development, most prominently undertaken by Thomas Aquinas, is equal with other or earlier classical theistic development under the ecumenical councils, or other theologians like Athanasius, Maximus the Confessor et al. I know people will disagree with me on just that point, but we will have to disagree. I believe Aquinas, for example, elevated Aristotelian categories in ways that other classical theists hadn’t prior to his unique and even genius movements of thought. While Aquinas was virtuoso I think he helped supply subsequent appropriations of his movements, such as we find in iterations of Post Reformed orthodox theology, with wrong emphases in regard to how we think God.

After the long qualification and sketch I just offered, what I want to do now is quote someone I respect and consider a friend, Steve Duby. Steve did his PhD on the very issues we have just been addressing, particularly with reference to the medieval classical tradition and how that impacts a doctrine of God. What I want to highlight, in particular, is how appeal to the classical theistic trad, so understood, affects, and more, correlates, or doesn’t, with the God Self-revealed in Jesus Christ as attested in Holy Scripture. As Protestants we like to assert that we are subordinate to the authority of Holy Scripture, as one of the principles of the Protestant Reformation; but in practice I often think that this assertion gets negated. In other words, in our attempt to, in good-faith, explicate the inner-logic (or theology) of Scripture, we end up affirming traditions that at the end of the day transmute God into a deity that I would contend does not fit well with the God Self-explicated in Jesus Christ. In this attempt we end up allowing the metaphysic we have adopted to do this type of heavy lifting for us to transgress the prior principle we say we are committed to when we assert that we are committed to the categorical authority of Holy Scripture. We allow the metaphysic and its categories to ‘essentially’ dictate to us what the categories of God must be even if those categories are not concurrent with the God we continuously encounter as we turn the pages of Scripture.

To help illustrate what I have been blathering on about further, let us now hear from Duby on God. I will appeal to what he has written in an effort to make clear what I have been asserting in regard to what happens when a faulty metaphysic is appealed to in a good-faith attempt to grammarize and articulate God for the church (no easy task to be sure!). Here is what Steve writes; for those familiar you will notice the Aristotelian over and undertones as the informing categories.

In His perfect actuality, the triune God freely creates a contingent world. The concern that we noted earlier in theologians like Moltmann and Torrance about preserving the contingency of the world should not be brushed aside. At the same time, that contingency is grounded, not in a divine temporal succession in which God might exist in temporal priority to creation, but rather in God’s fullness and completeness that entails, in scholastic terms, His “liberty of indifference” (freedom to create or not to create the world without any fulfillment or declension of His being hanging in the balance). Given that God is already actively fulfilled in Himself in trinitarian fellowship, He needs no external counterpart or external object of love. In choosing to create the world and in performing the act of creation itself, He does not fulfill a potency in His being but instead generously directs or turns His essential actuality toward the world. It may be asked whether God accomplished His outward action by His essential actuality would mean that the outward action is just as necessary as God’s own act of being. Why should God’s outward action still be taken as ontologically subsequent to His (necessary) act of being? My response is simply to clarify that the argument here does not posit a total identity of essential actuality and outward action. The former is complete in itself and absolutely necessary in God, while the latter is a matter of the application of the former toward creatures. Since the former is perfect in God’s triune life, God is by nature “indifferent” toward creatures in a technical sense (unable to be improved or attenuated by willing to create or not to create). His outward action is thus located under an externally directed, free application of His essential actuality, which then entails a distinction between the (contingent) action or egression and the necessary essential act of God.[1]

We can see that Duby is attempting to offer a treatment of God that appeals to classical theistic categories within a discussion about a God-world relation in a doctrine of creation. We also see appeal to, in particular, the categories of immutability and impassibility; the ideas that God cannot be moved from an extraneous reality to himself, and similarly that God has no passions contingent upon external sources such as human agents represent; indeed God has no passion given his fully actualized state, according to this iteration of the classical tradition. Duby earlier in the chapter notes that it is possible to arrive at such categories about God by way of ‘general revelation’ outwith the special revelation provided for by the Bible or more specifically, Jesus Christ; Duby writes, “. . . various authors in the Christian tradition have (justifiably, in my estimation) gleaned from general revelation that God is “pure act” (never inactive or having any unrealized potential in Himself) . . . .”[2] And this gets us to the nub of my concern. Why would we, as Christians, by way of theological method, want to affirm that we could arrive at ‘basic’ conclusions about God without first giving priority to the categories we are confronted with by the disclosure of Holy Scripture and the Revelation that grounds that in Jesus Christ?

I emboldened the primary point of illustration I wanted to make from Steve’s treatment. Beyond the various scholastic distinctions being made between God’s actuality, potency, and how that works in an ostensibly Christian doctrine of creation, what I wanted to highlight is how that cashes out when it is applied to a Father/Son-humanity relation. ‘Technically God is indifferent towards creatures’ for the Dubyian account because God’s actuality, his impassibility must remain intact; in other words the Creator/creature distinction must be maintained such that any suggestion that God might be contingent upon his creation for his being must be ameliorated. I would agree that we don’t want to make God contingent upon creation, this would be the worst type of pantheism; but if we must use the classical theistic categories in order to arrive at this conclusion is something lost? I would contend: Yes, something is lost!

All throughout Scripture, Old and New Testaments, God is referred to in the most relational of terms; not just in anthropopathic terms, but in real existential (and ontological I would argue) terms. He ‘walks in the cool of the garden’ in fellowship with the prelapasarian Adam and Eve; He is the Father of Israel; He is the Shepherd of Israel; He broods over Israel as a Mother Hen broods over her chicks; He weeps; He is the Father of all comfort; He cries for His people; God is love. My point: Scripture does not offer us with a conception of God that is ‘technically indifferent towards creatures,’ in fact just the opposite! This is what I mean when I speak of a metaphysic that offers us a conception of God that is discordant with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Why would we want to affirm such categories to do such heavy lifting that in the end does something to God’s character that God himself according to Scripture does not emphasize about himself; at least not in the terms that said metaphysic requires?

 

[1] Steve J. Duby, “Divine Action And The Meaning Of Eternity,” in Bradford LittleJohn ed., God of our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Institute, 2018), Loc 2227, 2235, 2242 kindle version. [Emphasis mine]

[2] Ibid., Loc. 2107.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Is God Really Immutable? If He Is, How Is He? Muller, Molnar, Barth

Divine immutability; it is sometimes thought of as a purely philosophical lens imposed upon the God revealed in Jesus Christ and Holy Scripture (think of people like Pinnock, Harnack, et al.). For some it has functioned very much so in this way. For others, like Richard Muller, he believes that the whence of immutability, from its classically Hellenic sources, has been transmogrophied by the Christian witness such that its good kernel has been retained while the flowery husk has been discarded. But what is a basic working definition of Divine immutability? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it this way:

For one thing, the Scriptural witness is not really so clearly on the side of divine real intrinsic change. Much that Scripture says of God is clearly metaphor. And it is not hard to show that Old Testament texts which ascribe change to God could be speaking metaphorically. As I note later, one can parse even the Incarnation in ways which avoid divine real or intrinsic change. Standard Western theism clearly excludes many sorts of change in God. Western theists deny that God can begin or cease to be. If God cannot, He is immutable with respect to existence. Nothing can gain or lose an essential property, for nothing can fail to have such a property. For Western theists, God is by nature a spirit, without body. If he is, God cannot change physically — he is physically immutable. So the Western God could at most change mentally- in knowledge, will, or affect. Further, Scripture amply supports the claim that God is perfect in knowledge, will, and affect. This perfection seems to rule out many sorts of mental change.[1]

The primary thing that stands out is ‘change,’ or lack thereof. Another attending issue is that of ‘movement,’ which might imply change; i.e. if God is made to respond by something that is a predicate of his life (e.g. something that is contingent upon him rather than vice versa). Richard Muller cites Lutheran theologian Johannes Quenstedt, and provides further theological elaboration thereby:

We can see the attempt to recuperate immutability, or to appropriate it in such a way that it just is corollary with the prima facie teaching of Holy Writ. Interestingly, at one level, Muller himself places Barth on the side of the immutabilitists before he launches into critique of Barth. Muller writes,

While this is interesting, and to the point, I think I’d rather hear from a Barth scholar, like Paul Molnar, as he details just exactly upon what basis Barth thinks God’s immutability from. It indeed coheres with the basic contours of the intentions of classic immutability (that God cannot be moved by something external to him), but then reifies in such a way that the affections of God are not just understood as metaphors or anthropopathisms, but instead as reflective of who God actually is in himself (in se). Here Molnar is responding to the ‘Barth Wars,’ indeed he is contributing to it contra Bruce McCormack’s et al. idea that God’s electing work precedes who God is as triune thus allowing creation itself to determine who God chooses to be for us in the incarnation (Deus incarnandus). This is the context from which I take this quote from Molnar (for full disclosure). For our purposes what shouldn’t be lost is how Barth’s conception of immutability and mutability (or not) function in his theology; I would suggest this is the better way forward. While retaining the important node that God does not change, what is forwarded within that reality is that God does indeed genuinely love and feel; because he wants to; because this is how we know him to be from his Self-revelation in the Son (Deus incarnatus). Molnar writes:

Because it has been said that Barth’s view of God’s freedom changed after CD II/2, it is imperative to note here that Barth wanted to break the spell of an idea of God that was either mutable or immutable in the sense that God could not humble himself in Jesus Christ but that in the “supreme exercise” of his essence he could, as the immutable (constant) God, accomplish reconciliation for us. Nonetheless, Barth insists even here, “It is not that it is part of His divine essence, and therefore necessary, to become and be the God of man, Himself man. That He wills to be and becomes and is this God, and as such man, takes place in His freedom. It is His own decree and act. Nor is there anything in the essence of man to make necessary this divine decree or act” (IV/2, p. 85). What, then, is the divine essence that remains unchanged in all of this, Barth asks? He says, “It is the free love, the omnipotent mercy, the holy patience of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And it is the God of this divine essence who has and maintains the initiative in this event. He is not, therefore, subject to any higher force when He gives Himself up to the lowliness of the human being of the Son of God” (IV/2, p. 86).[2]

We see, according to Molnar, how Barth negotiates his way through the dilemma that has been set up between God’s so called immutability and mutability. For Barth this dilemma really is no dilemma, instead it represents an occasion to creatively construct a way through this apparent morass that recognizes the biblical significance that God does indeed not ‘change,’ but then pushes forward through the usually Ramist ways of negotiating with this, and instead attempts to think these issues through a personalist lens that starts with the hypostasis of the eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ. What bubbles up from this exercise is that God’s triune love grounds the way Barth thinks about ‘how’ God moves; he concludes that God’s movement is Self-determined and located in Divine freedom to be who graciously chooses to be for the other; all implicates of who God is eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

[1] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed 04-23-2018.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 273 n. 14.

*The Muller quotes come from this essay.

No. You Can’t Make me. I Don’t Want to Worship the God of the Calvinists and Classical Theists; I Want to Worship the God Revealed in Jesus Christ

I think since I started blogging in 2005 I’ve covered the gamut in regard to writing on all things Calvinism. But what is it that I find most troubling about what Calvinism is offering? Any ‘system’ of theology will be funded by one primary touchstone; i.e. its relative doctrine of God. This is what troubles me most about Calvinism (of the classical sort): its way of thinking God; the God it presents the world and church at large. This, I would imagine is what troubles most people who have problems with Calvinism, and yet for its devotees it’s this very reality that attracts them to Calvinism. How can this be?

This begs the question: What kind of God does Calvinism present? For anyone in the know—even folks who aren’t Calvinists, but know something of its basic premises, they would probably be able to get the answer to this question right—we all know that Calvinists require that God be Sovereign in all things (in meticulous ways even). But the Christian in general might query: “well, yeah, don’t all of us affirm that God is sovereign?” Indeed, all Christians affirm that God is sovereign; and yet for me, this is the biggest problem I have with the Calvinist conception of God. But I am a Christian, and so I affirm the sovereignty of God in all things. So how can this be the biggest problem I have with Calvinism? It’s because the way sovereignty is construed for the Calvinist God is contingent upon the metaphysic they, by and large, utilize in order to fund their conception of the God ostensibly revealed in Holy Scripture.

Classical Calvinists, who are a subset of Classical Theists (which covers a continuum of Roman Catholic and Protestant thought) primarily start their thinking about God by way of integrating Aristotelian categories about God with the God revealed in Christ attested to in Holy Scripture. In this scheme we get a God who is all Powerful, all Sovereign, but framed by the requirements we find in Aristotle’s conception of the Pure Being (Unmoved Mover, Actual Infinite). So this conception of God will not be defined by any type of passion, emotions, or indeed Love. In order for God to remain God in this scheme God must remain unmoved by his contingent creation, or he fails at being God and as its sustaining sovereign Creator. Bruce McCormack writes this with reference to the attributes of the God given to us by the classical theists (the classical Calvinists):

Classical theism presupposes a very robust Creator/creature distinction. God’s being is understood to be complete in itself with or without the world, which means that the being of God is “wholly other” than the being of the world. Moreover, God’s being is characterized by what we might think of as a “static” or unchanging perfection. All that God is, he is changelessly. Nothing that happens in the world can affect God on the level of his being. He is what he is regardless of what takes place—and necessarily so, since any change in a perfect being could be only in the direction of imperfection. Affectivity in God, if it is affirmed at all, is restricted to dispositional states which have no ontological significance.[1]

Veli – Matti Kärkkäinen provides further elaboration:

  • Pure actuality: According to the philosophy of Aristotle, everything that exists is a combination of form and matter; thus, everything possesses both actuality and potentiality. Potentiality for Aristotle meant a lack of perfection; it implied that something was yet to come. Therefore, to preserve God’s perfect nature, Christian thinkers had to deny potentiality in relation to God. Consequently, God is absolute actuality, pure form, and there is no matter to actualize his potentiality.
  • Immutability and impassibility: While these two attributes are not identical, they are related. The former suggests that God does not change, while the latter refers to the impossibility of God’s being acted upon. Often—but not always—immutability was interpreted in the sense that God cannot be “moved” in a true emotional sense; where Scripture seems to suggest that God grieves or rejoices, such passages were considered mere metaphor.
  • Timelessness: God’s eternal existence is timeless, outside of time. While the majority of classical theists beginning with Augustine (according to whom God created time as part of creation) accept this statement as true, it has been and is a disputed issue. This element, therefore, is not a decisive feature of classical theism.
  • Simplicity: God is not composed of parts as is everything else that exists. This attribute of God is, of course, related to many others, such as his changelessness. If God has no parts, God cannot change, since there are no parts for him to lose or gain.
  • Necessity: This attribute has two aspects. On the one hand, God’s existence is necessary in the sense that it is impossible for God not to exist. Everything except God exists contingently (is dependent on God). On the other hand, necessity means that the divine essence itself—”the particular package of attributes God possesses”—is necessary. It is no accident, and it cannot be otherwise; God cannot be other than as he is.
  • Omnipotence and omniscience: These attributes follow from what has been said before. Omniscience means that God knows all truths and holds no false beliefs. Omnipotence means that within the “limits” of God’s own attributes, God possesses the capacity to do everything.[2]

Now don’t get me wrong, there are certain features in the classical theistic basket that seem illuminating or even non-negotiable in regard to an orthodox understanding of God. Yet, it is this conception of God that causes me certain problems. Again, not that God is all powerful, nor that he is distinct from his creation, or that he does not need us to be God. The problem comes when this philosophical conceiving of God is privileged over against the categories that come with God’s Self-revelation itself. The idea that when the Bible refers to God having emotions, passions, and genuine love do not mesh well with the philosophical categories classical theists feel compelled to work with; and so they must simply relegate such Bible talk to metaphor, anthropomorphisms, anthropopathisms so on and so forth.

What we get with a God who cannot genuinely be touched by his creation, who will not be moved by his love for the other (in reality), is the God we see operative in the Westminster Confession of Faith. We get a God who is simply a brute Creator God of pure power; who is framed by what the philosopher believes is required for us to get the type of creation we have; a powerful God who can be discovered by negating the finite and inferring from that negation who God must be categorically and infinitely.

But this is not what or who we get in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. We get a God who cries, in Christ, for the people; as if they are lost sheep without a Shepherd. We get a God who speaks of his church as if his bride who he seeks to consummate relationship with; the most intimate and sacred of pictures. Jesus says: ‘when you see me you see the Father.’ Is this also figurative, or is this actual and concrete reality? If this is actually the case then with the epistolaro, John, we can genuinely affirm that God is love; that his sovereignty is defined by his filial love as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and not defined by his status as some sort of monadic pure being God who creates and relates to his creation as the brute Creator that he is only to be identified later (but figuratively) as a loving Father, and intimate Bride-groom Shepherd-God.

So this is the biggest problem I have with classical Calvinism’s God; he really is just a ‘God behind the back of Jesus,’ a God who really only interacts with his creation, when it comes to passionate-emotional realities, in figurative but not real or actual ways. When one must qualify their conception of God under such foreign pressures (relative to the Revelation itself), then we know there is something seriously awry. When the God we get in classical Calvinism (and Arminianism for that matter, and let’s not leave Open Theists out of this either) resembles the Pure Being of the classical Hellenic Philosophers more than the God revealed in Godself, in Jesus Christ, then we have a serious problem that must needs be attended to.

Sure, the most respected among us—particularly in the evangelical and Reformed ranks—have felt compelled to drink freely and without charge at the fount of classical theism’s wet bar; but why? The only response I can come up with in regard to the ‘why’ question is that these young (and old) guys and gals are seriously ecclesiocentrically driven. In other words, they want to be identified as Reformed catholics; i.e. they believe in a kind of progressive revelation under the care of God’s providential watch when it comes to the development of ecclesial tradition. They are fully committed to the idea that, all-in-all, the way the doctrine of God has developed through the centuries in the church has had to have Divine guidance, at some level. In other words, there is a serious natural theology at play here. These (relatively) young, restless, and reformed theologians believe, I surmise, that because it’s there—in church history and the history of churchly ideation—that, indeed, God must have wanted, for example, Thomas Aquinas to integrate Aristotle’s categories with Christian theology thus producing a faithful and orthodox accounting of how the church ought to understand and grammarize God in their theologizing and witness bearing capacities as churchly thinkers.

I have much more to say, but these are some inchoate thoughts (I have written on many of these themes over the years here at the blog and my other blogs of past repute). But I simply leave off with this: classical Calvinism’s conception of God (or any other expression of classical theism) is not of necessity the orthodox conception of God. There are better ways to think God, and we can be attuned to some of the classical theistic concerns while not giving them pride of place. We need to, as good Protestant Christians, give God’s Self-revelation pride of place; we need to realize that that revelation itself, as attested to in Holy Scripture (i.e. the ‘scripture principle’) comes with its own categories. We need to flip the normal way of doing business for so many of these classical theistic thinkers on its head, and return to the mode that believes the best way forward is to allow God’s Self-revelation in Christ, as attested to by Holy Scripture, to have the categorical say when it comes to how we think God.

I don’t personally want to worship a hybrid version of God who me and Aristotle could equally ascribe worth to based upon our similar convictions about his nature. I want to worship the God who is considered both foolish and weak; the God the Greeks originally believed this to be true of (i.e. weak and foolish), the God revealed in Jesus Christ (cf. I Corinthians 1.17-25). And there is a way to do all of this without losing orthodoxy; there is a way in the history of the church even.

 

[1] Bruce McCormack, ed.,Engaging the Doctrine of God, 186–87, cited by Bobby Grow in Evangelical Calvinism, 96.

[2] Veli- Matti Kärkkäinen citing David Ray Griffin in, The Doctrine of God: A Global Introduction, 54-5.

Germans, Decrees, and “A God Behind the Back of Jesus”

This was the topic of my only offering to Christianity Today (2013); the issue of God’s so called transcendence and immanence, relative to the creaturely order. My article was a contribution to their Global Gospel Project, and in it I attempt to popularly introduce a rather technical conception, that in the history is known as God’s ‘power’ theology—i.e. potentia absoluta/potentia ordinata (his absolute and ordained power). This theology is often attributed to nominalist thinking, or even to William of Ockham, but no matter, what it does, whatever its historical antecedents, at a conceptual level is drive a wedge between who God is in eternity in his ‘inner-life’ (in se), and who he has revealed himself to be economically in salvation history (ad extra). Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance have pithily glossed this as their being ‘a God behind the back of Jesus’; they are quite right to do so.

I am currently reading David Congdon’s big Bultmann book (not because he and I are friends anymore, but because I should just probably read it), and in it, as he is developing the distinctions between Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, he offers a sketch (via footnote) of how Eberhard Jüngel critiques a doctoral student of Barth’s, Helmut Gollwitzer, and how Gollwitzer (as news to me) operates with the kind of dualism between God’s revealed will, and antecedent being that we see in the potentia theology we just noted. Let’s see how Congdon recounts Jüngel’s treatment of Gollwitzer, and then reflect upon what this kind of thinking might do for those of us who want to think, along with Jesus Christ, that ‘when we see him [Jesus] we see the Father.’ Congdon offers:

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

I wrote the following in my Christianity Today article:

If God’s revelation in Christ does not truly represent God’s eternal nature, then sending Christ could have been an arbitrary gesture. God might well have reached out to humanity in a very different manner—or not reached out to humanity at all. And at any point in the future, he might act in an infinite number of unpredictable ways. If God’s activity in revealed time doesn’t reflect his eternal nature, we cannot be sure of Jesus’ words to doubting Thomas: “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7).[2]

Gollwitzer presents the same dilemma that so many prior to him had. It is a similar dilemma that we get from classical Reformed and Arminian theology; one that has God mediating himself through a mechanism of absolute decrees, and through primary and secondary causation. In this scheme you can never quite be sure if you are dealing with the God revealed through his decrees, or the actual decreeing God (unless of course we want to collapse God into his decrees, but I surely don’t want to do that); similar to Gollwitzer, in this way, there is a God behind the back of Jesus for such presentations.

 

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

[2] Bobby Grow, “God Behind the Veil: His ways are hidden from ordinary eyes, but not from the eyes of faith,” Christianity Today (May 2013): 42.

Arius, ‘the good Greek’: And Miscellanies on the Greekification of God

This is not going to be an extensive engagement with nor introduction to Arius’s theology, in fact I will presume that those reading this will already have some sort of understanding of who, Arius was in the history of the church and what his heresy entails. But I wanted to highlight something I just read with reference to Arius; I thought the way the authors stated this was well put, and so would be beneficial for you all to read too. After we work through the quote from said authors (who you will meet in a moment) I will apply the ‘Greek’ link to a problem that has currently been being addressed online in regard to the John Frame and James Dolezal debate; albeit indirectly (since I will not address the actual debate in detail, but will only touch upon currents that are indeed related to the debate).

As we know Arius argued that Jesus, the Son of God, was a creation of God; that he shared a unity of will with his Creator God, but not a unity of being. Yes, for Arius the Son was indeed elevated to a level of degree over the rest of the created order, even functioning as a cipher through whom God created, but indeed the Son remained subordinate and a creature of God. Arius was driven to this conclusion because he was driven by his conviction that there could only be one actual infinite, one pure being; any division in that being, by definition, would render God to be no-God based upon the a priori definitional conviction that these were the requirements for God to be God. We can better appreciate, then, Arius’s dilemma when confronted with Christian reality; he was attempting, based upon his servile conviction that God must be a monad in order to actually be God, to negotiate his way out of this dilemma—an artificial dilemma of his own making.

The following quote, just like my last post, is taken from Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink’s Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction. The way they characterize Arius is rather brilliant. They don’t antagonistically get after Arius, instead they simply and almost sympathetically contextualize Arius as the Greek thinker that he genuinely was:

10.5.1 Arius and Athanasius

Put most simply, Arius asked about the order to which Jesus, as the incarnate Word, belonged: to the order of God, or to that of created reality? Arius opted for the second and had some good arguments on his side. He read the Old Testament texts that speak of the unity of God: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God is one Lord” (Deut 6:4). If God, as the Father, is the first, then he must also be the only one, and besides him there can be only that which is created; thus Jesus belongs in that category. Nor can God exist in a double, a twofold (or threefold), manner, so Jesus is not a second God. The highest essence is not plural; God, as the only one, is by definition indivisible. This view does not so much make Arius a good Jew (as we mentioned earlier, Judaism in this era did not totally reject any plurality in God), but rather a good Greek. To the Greek mind, which is always in search of the unchanging primordial beginning (the arche), divisibility implies mutability.[1]

Arius was just being a good Pure Being theologian. He couldn’t figure out how to think the Son into the being of the eternal immutable God, on how the Greek mind thought that, and, as such he had to, of necessity, make the Son a creature and say: ‘there was a time when the Son was not.’

Miscellanies on the Hellenization of God

In some ways this is should explain to you why I am so leery of ‘pure being’ theology; of the sort that relies heavily say upon Aristotelian categories in order to provide a grammar for the Christian and Triune God. There is a basic incompatibility between the Greek conception of God, or pure being, and the God Self-revealed in Jesus Christ. This is why I am so leery of so called classical theism, because it relies so heavily upon a Greek mindset for thinking God. And yet, there is a revitalization of classical theism currently happening among Reformed and evangelical theologians in particular. My ‘fear’, in regard to classical theism and the overly Greek mind ostensibly behind it, was captured much more famously by Adolph von Harnack’s ‘hellenization thesis.’ Michael Allen explains, in a nutshell, what that entails, and then goes on to illustrate how it is that people like Allen et al. are moving beyond the Harnackian thesis in order to retrieve what the past classical theists produced in regard to a grammar for thinking and speaking the Christian God:

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? For several decades in the twentieth century, the answer seemed to be overwhelmingly: “Too much!” The influence of Greek philosophy upon Christian faith and practice was viewed as excessive and uncritical. A century ago Adolf von Harnack proposed the “Hellenization thesis,” the argument that the early church swallowed a bunch of Hellenistic fat that makes their theological approach difficult to digest today.  Harnack proposed a radical revision to the faith whereby we seek to cut the fat out and get back to the message of Jesus himself, a proclamation unencumbered by the metaphysics of Greece and the dogmas of the later fathers. The influence of this model of history has been and continues to be remarkably widespread, accepted not only in more revisionist circles (e.g., Jürgen Moltmann) but also by those who wish to affirm orthodox theology (e.g., the late Colin Gunton). Its most deleterious application regards the character of God, that is, the doctrine of divine attributes. Numerous attributes were viewed as Greek accretions that ran not only away from, but directly against the grain of biblical teaching and Christ-centered theology.[2]

I am not necessarily endorsing, tout court, the Harnackian thesis, but I do think his is a good cautionary tale in regard to thinking about the influence that Greek categories had upon how Christians have thought God. I actually do think it is possible to ‘evangelize’ certain types of metaphysics in the service of the Gospel and its articulation—not just Hellenism, but even Hegelianism, etc.—but only in such a way that the categories present within such philosophical systems become so recontextualized by the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Christ that the corollary between the former philosophical context and the new Christian revelational context has been rent asunder to the point of no real contact. Note what Myk Habets writes in regard to the way that Patristic theologians, when hammering out a Doctrine of God and Christology, were able to achieve in their usage of Greek metaphysics:

I grant that patristic theology was tempted constantly by the thrust of Greek thought to change the concepts of impassibility and immutability in this direction, but it remained entrenched within the orbit of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the living God who moves himself, who through his free love created the universe, imparting to its dynamic order, and who through the outgoing of his love moves outside of himself in the incarnation.[3]

This is something of what I am referring to in regard to the way it is possible to engage with Greek metaphysics, but then convert them in such a way that they are resurrected with Christ which reorients their inability to actually get at the wonder of who the genuine Christian God is which is purely reliant upon God’s own Self-exegesis in Christ.

There is always this dance, though. We must decide, at some point, how well a particular system of theology achieves the proper movements in this dance between its referral to something like pure being theology (of the sort that Arius was slavishly committed to), and how that may or may not be allowed to implicate the way Christians attempt to speak God. I personally think that something like the classical theist synthesis has failed at providing a conception of God that actually emphasizes the relationality of God, and instead offers a God who is too stilted by a kind of mechanical identity that is devoid of real passion, emotions, and that type of dynamism. Habets comments further on this reality (and with this we’ll close) as he reflects on the impact that pure being theology has had upon the development of Christian theology:

This freedom is also found in the very Being of God. When medieval theology adopted Aristotelian philosophy the Greek notion of God as impassible and immutable was also adopted. In this way Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover became associated with the God of the Scriptures. However, in Patristic theology immutability and impassibility, as applied to God, were not associated with these philosophical ideas but were actually a challenge to it. It is true that God is not moved by, and is not changed by, anything outside himself, and that he is not affected by anything or does not suffer from anything beyond himself. But this simply affirms the biblical fact that God is transcendent and the one who created ex nihilo. What the Fathers did not mean is that God does not move himself and is incapable of imparting motion to what he has made. It does not mean that God is devoid of passion, of love, mercy and wrath, and that he is impassibly and immutably related to our world of space and time in such a way that it is thrown back upon itself as a closed continuum of cause and effect.[4]

If we must speak of God in ways that diminish his revealed reality as relational, dynamic, and Triune love then we might be suffering from an Arian hangover. It would be best to repent of such drunkenness and think new ways, just as the patristic theologians did, to evangelize the metaphysics we use to think and speak God.

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 404. [emphasis mine]

[2] Michael Allen, The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval: Recent Developments in the Divine Attributes, accessed 11-08-17.

[3] Myk Habets, Part I, A Realist Approach to Science and Theology, accessed 11-08-17.

[4] Ibid.