Grace is Not a Phase: Knowledge of God as the Basis for Knowledge of the Justified Self

I have often thought this, and maybe you have too. John Calvin identifies, famously, in his Institute, this, in regard to knowledge of God and knowledge of self, in light of knowledge of God:

Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain. Here, again, the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty. In particular, the miserable ruin into which the revolt of the first man has plunged us, compels us to turn our eyes upwards; not only that while hungry and famishing we may thence ask what we want, but being aroused by fear may learn humility. For as there exists in man something like a world of misery, and ever since we were stript of the divine attire our naked shame discloses an immense series of disgraceful properties every man, being stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness, in this way necessarily obtains at least some knowledge of God. Thus, our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, reminds us, (see Calvin on John 4: 10,) that in the Lord, and none but He, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness. We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, so long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is contented with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.

Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self

On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also – He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced. For, since we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself. And since nothing appears within us or around us that is not tainted with very great impurity, so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled delights us as if it were most pure just as an eye, to which nothing but black had been previously presented, deems an object of a whitish, or even of a brownish hue, to be perfectly white. Nay, the bodily sense may furnish a still stronger illustration of the extent to which we are deluded in estimating the powers of the mind. If, at mid-day, we either look down to the ground, or on the surrounding objects which lie open to our view, we think ourselves endued with a very strong and piercing eyesight; but when we look up to the sun, and gaze at it unveiled, the sight which did excellently well for the earth is instantly so dazzled and confounded by the refulgence, as to oblige us to confess that our acuteness in discerning terrestrial objects is mere dimness when applied to the sun. Thus too, it happens in estimating our spiritual qualities. So long as we do not look beyond the earth, we are quite pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue; we address ourselves in the most flattering terms, and seem only less than demigods. But should we once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and reflect what kind of Being he is, and how absolute the perfection of that righteousness, and wisdom, and virtue, to which, as a standard, we are bound to be conformed, what formerly delighted us by its false show of righteousness will become polluted with the greatest iniquity; what strangely imposed upon us under the name of wisdom will disgust by its extreme folly; and what presented the appearance of virtuous energy will be condemned as the most miserable impotence. So far are those qualities in us, which seem most perfect, from corresponding to the divine purity.[1]

These are such important and profound thoughts; and ones that have relevance for us currently. I am just finishing up Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink’s Christian Dogmatics (approx. 800 pp.). In their section on justification/salvation, and in particular, in their constructive proposal, in their sub-section on participation, they imbibe some of the aspects noted by Calvin, in regard to knowledge of God, and apply them to what it means to be ‘sanctified’ or ‘transformed’ (a term they prefer to sanctification) before the living God. What they highlight is something that I have come to realize over time in my walk with Jesus Christ as well. While genuine transformation can and does take place (mortificatio/vivificatio), there is also the further realization that we never arrive; and thus, I’d inject, why the Apostle Paul in Romans 6—8 uses the language of continuously ‘reckoning ourselves dead to sin.’ The whole point of our ‘old man’ or the ‘flesh’ needing to be put to death is that therein nothing good dwells, and never will. The reality is that we continue to live in these fallen bodies with all of its old wretched desires, and so we needs be reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to the living Christ. It is within this tenor that Kooi and Brink write:

Thus we can understand why Christian dogmatics often has little enthusiasm about trying to describe our progress in becoming transformed into the image of Christ. All our “glittering images” (à la Susan Howatch) can easily blow up in our faces. We must indeed be very circumspect in translating this transformation directly into moral categories. For instance, it is wrong to suppose that believers gradually acquire a nobler character so as to need less and less forgiveness, justification, and communion with Christ. For the transformation they experience is primarily a matter of growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). His grace will never be a phase that we have left behind but will remain the source to which we constantly return and draw upon ever more purposefully. For growing in Christ also implies at least some increase in self-knowledge. When we become aware that we see but little improvement in the passions and imaginations at the bottom of our heart, that nasty tendencies such as jealousy, hedonism, and superficiality seem to be more resilient than we thought, we can become more modest and realistic. If we acknowledge these things in ourselves rather than denying them, we will more consciously deal with them—for instance, by making a greater effort, based on our participation in Christ, to focus on what pleases God and is good for others. This pattern is what the gospel refers to as denying oneself; not disparaging feelings of always having to be submissive to others, but the conscious choice, at different moments in life, to go the way of Christ and to be there for others (Matt 16:24 and pars.).[2]

Walking with Christ can be a discouraging thing; particularly when false expectations are injected into a young believer’s life early on. It is important to realize, I think, what Kooi and Brink alert us to; i.e. that we will never arrive until beatific vision happens, and thus we are at the constant behest of God. I do believe there can certainly be maturation or ‘transformation’ (cf. II Cor. 3.18) in the believer’s life; and that there indeed should be over a life lived. But the reality will always remain, and this is indeed sobering, that the impulses and orientations for the various expressions of sin that we are disposed to personally will always lay just below the surface; albeit in the grave of Jesus Christ. We clearly have been freed from the power of sin in our lives, but with the sober realization that that aspect of our old self hasn’t been repaired, but instead put to death; and so we must continuously reckon that to be so as we participate in the death and life of Jesus Christ by his resurrection power applied to our lives moment by moment afresh and anew by the Holy Spirit. This walk is a daily exercise; a battle even.

[1] John Calvin, Institute.

[2] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 690.

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A Note on the Christian Conception of the Relationship Between Church and State: A Christopolitical Dispatch

Theo-politics have been somewhat of an uninterrogated reality for me. As a conservative evangelical, growing up, I sloppily and haphazardly went the way of the Republican party as “the lesser of two-evils” in our representative government in North America. As time has progressed, and I have developed more (at least I like to think that) I have become what might be called unenthralled and agnostic when it comes to politics, but the reality is that this just cannot be. As a Christian politics is always a present reality; the fact that Jesus is Lord (kyrios) is in itself a call to action, and to be engaged in such a way that requires that I be intentionally thoughtful about theopolitical action. The theo attached to the political is of upmost and adjectival significance for me; it might be better, just for sake of clarity and specificity to call this concern christopolitical. So this has caused me a bit of anguish—although the realities of daily life often keep me preoccupied such that I have less time to critically contemplate such verities with the type of acuity that I’d like—as a result I keep seeking ways to think about my relation to the state as a member of Christ’s church (catholic).

In seminary I took a class called Church and Culture; this class was taught by Paul Metzger, and in it we worked through Karl Barth’s concepts on the relationship between the sacred and secular—we spent our time working through Metzger’s PhD dissertation on the subject helping him get it ready for publication. It was in this class that I really began to see a critical way to think theopolitics, but that remained an inchoate reality for me; nevertheless the frame was set for thinking such things through the analogy of the incarnation and the Chalcedonian pattern which the hypostatic union provided the component concepts towards. Not too long ago I read Barth’s book Against the Stream, which represent some post-second world war talks and lectures he gave, as I recall, in Hungary and Poland. In these published lectures I gained an even better grasp for what I was introduced to in Metzger’s class; in regard to how to think of the relationship between the state/church in a Christic frame. Most recently (like tonight) I have continued to read through Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink’s Christian Dogmatics, and have come to the section where they are sketching the various approaches that have developed in the history of ecclesial interpretation in regard to how Christians have thought the relation of church/state together. Here I want to share two of the four frames that I find most attractive (and leave the other two frames to the side since they are less attractive to me). What you will find is that Barth’s approach juxtaposed with a sort of Reformized Anabaptist tradition is what comes to the fore in my own proclivities relative to thinking state/church, and ‘kingdom theology’ together (and apart in some ways). Here is what Kooi and Brink have to offer us:

The church as a Christ-confessing church for all people. After the Second World War the Dutch Reformed Church promoted the ideal of a Christ-confessing church for all people; in this way it tried to connect distance from and commitment to public affairs. The model followed Barth’s proposal that the church, by its proclamation, should fulfill a public role for the common good. This “theology of the apostolate” has also been referred to as proclamation-theocracy: the church does not directly interfere in the government and does not attempt t usurp its powers but rather, on the basis of the Bible, holds up a prophetical-critical mirror before those who govern. The ideals of the World Council of Churches and other efforts to have the church assume a prophetic role in the world also belong in this category. The supporters of this view were optimistic about its possibilities, but in the Netherlands their attempt failed because the forces of secularization were stronger than expected.[1]

They continue with the fourth frame, which is that much more amenable with an Apocalyptic theological frame that I am oriented from (see Philip Ziegler’s new book Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology); but also with an Anabaptist tenor in the flux of this frame of understanding.

The church as a counterculture or contrast community. A recent and popular image for the church’s role in the public domain proposes that it be a “contrast community” (Yoder, Hauerwas; but also  more and more theologians from mainline Protestant churches feel attracted to  this model; e.g., see Bruijne 2012). That is, the church is not primarily an association with some good ideas; its vitality is found by living under a new life order, namely, that of the kingdom. This kingdom produces its own politics, a structure of practices in which people bless each other, wish each other well, forgive each other, and reject all forms of violence. It only bears witness of the heavenly kingdom but is itself a witness through its praxis. This praxis, in fact, answers the question of how the church may speak.

This position strongly emphasizes the difference between the church and the world; it may indeed be called Anabaptist to the extent that the orders of heavenly and earthly citizenship are kept far apart. Practically, it leaves the political order to its own devices. But it can also take a more Reformed or Catholic shape through a new appreciation of the Augustinian doctrine of the two kingdoms—by recognizing, in other words, that in real life the two realms cannot be totally separated. They are intertwined here below and will be separated by God only in the eschaton. (see Matt 13:29-30). In this world Christians must live with this tension. When they try to escape and eliminate that tension (as in the Anabaptist view), they withdraw from the ongoing course of history, in which God ordains that his church live. A real continuity connects the fallen world and redemption, and the work of the Holy Spirit is not confined to the domains of the church and believer; it seeks to have an impact upon the world. What we noted in chapter 8 about a responsible doctrine of sin is relevant at this point. It enables us to take a realistic view of the world and to implement damage control from the perspective of God’s new reality. This attitude differs from that of older Protestant positions in consciously leaving behind the quest for relevance, and with it the majority strategy that for many centuries burdened and plagued the church in the public domain.[2]

Between these two frames, particularly the latter paragraph in the latter frame emerges a semblance of my own approach to the relationship between the state/church-secular/sacred. I alluded to Ziegler’s work in his book Militant Grace, the themes he identifies and develops therein also provide the sort of theological depth that I like to appeal to in order to thicken what these sketches only present in introductory form. What’s at center for me in all of this, from a theological perspective (what other perspective is there for the Christian?), is that the doctrine of the primacy of Jesus Christ orients all considerations about Everything. In other words, this whole discussion takes place, for me, between the two poles of protology and eschatology, original creation and disruptive recreation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There still yet remains agnosticisms in regard to how all of this gets applied in daily life, and in my own perceptual encounter with the complexities foisted upon us by the travail and groaning that this old creation, and the human governments therein present; but this ought to let you in on how I intend to approach this world, in its highly charged christopolitical context, for the glory of God in the name of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 636-37.

[2] Ibid. 637-38.

Avoiding the Sin of Acedia: Living the Christian Life in Step with the Spirit of Christ

We come into the Christian life, whenever we do, and start the walk. At first, at least in evangelical circles, we identify new converts, often times with such phrases as “they are on fire,” so on and so forth. But after time passes, trials and tribulations face us, and we
gain experience[s] in the church we might become jaded, or at the very least start to experience a sense of dullness towards all things spiritual. We begin to domesticate and normalize our faith to the point that we conflate our experiences with the object (and subject) of our faith, Jesus Christ. Once we take this step—usually subconsciously—a vacuum is created. This is where things become tenuous, and spiritually dangerous. We will attempt to fill this vacuum with all sorts of new experiences, experiences that are more akin to ‘sowing to the flesh’ rather than ‘to the Spirit.’ We start to engage in daily practices that ‘grieve’ and ‘quench’ the Holy Spirit in our lives, and this all out of the seeming mundanity of our spiritual lives; out of the idea that we have arrived as Christians, had all or most of the experiences one can have, and now are seeking fulfillment in life by other means. I remember, as someone who grew up in the church, having a conversation with friends (who had similar backgrounds) when we were just recently out of high school, we thought we were all ‘veterans’ of the faith; that we’d already seen it all. It wasn’t long after this that I started to slide in my walk with Christ, and what I have been describing thus far began to overtake me; leading to actions that did not magnify Christ, but instead magnified me.

In the ancient monastic church the ‘sin’ I’m referring to was called acedia. Cornelius van der Kooi offers a wonderful description of this as he is discussing participation in the Spirit of Christ in his development of a Spirit Christology; he writes:

. . .  We do not have the unique relationship with God that Christ enjoyed. We are God’s adopted children. Yet this status in itself is a great mystery: it is the triune God who dwells in us, who has poured out his Spirit in his church! At the same time, this indwelling is not a matter of peace but involves warfare. We are often stubborn and do not readily incline to the Spirit and his work. In fact, the Holy Spirit may be grieved and even snuffed out. The house may feel or even be empty. Before we know it, we may be overcome by what in the monastic tradition is called the demon of acedia. It is the feeling of emptiness, boredom, and discontentment, bordering on melancholy. It refers to those times when we live in our own little world, are asleep, are unguarded, and try to put our restlessness to death with nervous distractions. Here no therapy can help us but only healing. God’s Spirit must come in order to fill us and make us complete. Outside of that movement, we are lost.[1]

This sort of creep can even happen to us as we are seemingly and actively walking with Jesus; even in seasons when we think we are genuinely in step with the Spirit. It might not be as overt as the discussion I had with my friends years ago, it might be more subtle; we might be reading the Bible daily, reading theology texts, be involved in church ministries and activities, and yet acedia could still begin to grab a hold of our hearts and put us into a place of spiritual deadness; a spot where we are going through the motions. My sense is that acedia is alive and well in the Christian church, and is one that we need to recognize and repent of.

What this sin points up to me is that within the Christian life there is a vigilance that is required. It is reliance upon the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, that will provide the kind of vigilance we need to avoid this particular ‘demon.’ It is so subtle and ‘creepy’ that we might not know it is even happening to us until we have engaged in some sort of egregious sin that then makes our whole lifestyle all too apparent. This is why reliance upon the Holy Spirit in Christ is so important for the Christian life. He will ‘put us to death over and over again, that the life of Christ might also be made manifest through the mortal members of our bodies’ (II Cor. 4.10). I would suggest that this is what is required if we are to avoid acedia; we must, as the Apostle said of himself, ‘have the sentence of death written upon us that we won’t trust in ourselves, but in the One who is able to raise the dead’ (II Cor. 1.7-9). We can pray for this type of lifestyle, and God will and has provided that for us in Christ. But this type of lifestyle—the one that avoids acedia—is not comfortable. In fact this type of non-acedia lifestyle can cause great anguish, dark nights of the soul, bouts of depression and anxiety, physical tumults, and a host of other means through which the Holy Spirit in God’s providence in Christ, will produce his death in our lives that his life will also be present for the world to see, and for us to experience. If you dare, ask the Lord to arrest any sort of acedia in your life and see what he won’t do. His grace is sufficient (I say with fear and trembling).

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi, This Incredibly Benevolent Force: The Holy Spirit in Reformed Theology and Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 104-05.

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.

Christology as a Case Study: The Relationship Between Church Tradition and the Bible as Fonts of Authority and Divine Knowledge

The tension present between the role of church tradition and the bible, and how the two mutually implicate one or the other (or don’t) is not going away any time soon. There are those who want to believe that they can be strict, even slavish wooden bible literalists; then there are others who believe that the tradition of the church functions magisterially in the biblical interpretive process; and yet others who want to attempt a kind of dialectic between the two (I’d say the best of the Reformed sola Scriptura approach resides here). As a Reformed Christian, and evangelical, I hold to the ‘scripture principle’ that scripture itself is authoritative and the norming norm over and against all else; even tradition. Of course I’m not naïve enough to think that the scripture principle itself is not its own ‘tradition,’ but it is so heuristically. Here is how Oliver Crisp breaks down the various tiers of principles relative to how scripture, church tradition, regional creeds, and theological opinion all ought to relate one with the other (from a Reformed perspective):

  1. Scripture is the norma normans, the principium theologiae. It is the final arbiter of matters theological for Christians as the particular place in which God reveals himself to his people. This is the first-order authority in all matters of Christian doctrine.
  2. Catholic creeds, as defined by and ecumenical council of the Church, constitute a first tier of norma normata, which have second-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. Such norms derive their authority from Scripture to which they bear witness.
  3. Confessional and conciliar statements of particular ecclesial bodies are a second tier of norma normata, which have third-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. They also derive their authority from Scripture to the extent that they faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture.
  4. The particular doctrines espoused by theologians including those individuals accorded the title Doctor of the Church which are not reiterations of matters that are de fide, or entailed by something de fide, constitute theologoumena, or theological opinions, which are not binding upon the Church, but which may be offered up for legitimate discussion within the Church.[1]

I think this is a helpful overview (I’ve shared it before, in fact, in years past). But I also wanted to share, at some length, a quote from Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink that fleshes this out even further. They are in the midst of discussing Christology and how the tradition of the church played the role that it did in providing the grammar that the church has held as the orthodox grammar towards speaking about the relationship of God and humanity/humanity and God in the singular person of Jesus Christ. Necessarily, in the midst of their discussion they are broaching the very issue I am highlighting in this post—i.e. how we ought to think about the relationship between church tradition and biblical teaching. They write (in extenso):

In a sense, and depending on where we currently find ourselves, the christological decisions of the fourth and fifth century are stations that we might have passed. We accept them gratefully while appropriating them critically. We need to pay attention to the underlying issues in the christological debate, to see where positions had to be guarded and why certain concepts that were introduced were needed. The conclusion of the Council of Nicaea that Jesus is of one essence (homo-ousios) with the Father, for instance, is much easier to understand when we realize that it was prompted by the desire to safeguard the thoroughly biblical idea that we cannot ensure our own salvation. God himself must become involved in the world—if we as human beings—are to be rescued from ruin, and for that reason Jesus must share the same “being,” or essence, with God. We simply are not like the fictional Baron Munchausen who, according to a well-known story, was able to pull himself out of the mud by his own hair. In brief, we do not accept the formulas because they happen to be part of the tradition, but because we discover genuine biblical motives behind these statements and in what they want to signal. One could say that the christological decisions (Niceno-Constantinopolitan and Chalcedon) are the directives of a former generation for how to handle the gospel story, the message of the God of Israel, and the Father of Jesus Christ.

There also is an important theological reason to exercise this “hermeneutic of trust” with respect to the tradition’s unifying message of the person of Jesus. Christ himself promised his disciples that the Spirit would lead them into all truth (John 16:13). It would be incredibly callous to suggest that the tradition is completely in the dark. At the same time, this promise gives no guarantee against the possibility of some obscuring or ideological manipulation of the gospel, whether presented in very high church or in popular forms. Therefore, we must always be critical in our dealings with the tradition; we must be selective on the basis of what the apostles and prophets have given us in the Bible.

When faced with the question of whether the tradition is a legitimate source for our Christology, we therefore give this dual answer. On the one hand, we gratefully accept the christological decisions of the church that came from the ecumenical councils. We thus abide by the course and the outcome of the christological debate. We move on, even though we realize that some alternatives might have been condemned at these councils owing to church politics and that the conclusions might well have turned out differently or have ended in the (often rather broad) margins of the church. But we trust that this is a case of hominum confusione Dei providentia (God’s providence [may be executed in the midst of] human confusion). On the other hand, our task is always to return to the biblical texts and, within their range of possibilities, take a critical look at the decisions and the terminology the councils used. Going back to the Bible this way is needed for several reasons. Something clearly present in the texts may have been lost in the process of debate; going back to the texts thus may represent an enrichment. But we also face a problem of comprehension when ancient languages become a stumbling block in a changed context, and we may need to reinterpret and reword the context of the dogma because of those changes. The struggles recent generations of believers and theologians have had with certain concepts of classic Christology represent a real problem we may not simply brush away.[2]

I find these to be wise words, and represent a good way for attempting to negotiate this kind of tenuous situation between tradition and the Bible. It touches, of course, on issues of authority in the church and how that relates to the biblical and theological interpretive processes itself.

Someone I have found fruitful towards engaging in this kind of negotiation between taking the trad seriously, and at the same time allowing the reality of Holy Scripture to be determinative, is Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Bruce McCormack offers these good words on Barth in this regard:

I say all of this to indicate that even the ecumenical creeds are only provisional statements. They are only relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes “orthodoxy.” Ultimately, orthodox teaching is that which conforms perfectly to the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture. But given that such perfection is not attainable in this world, it is understandable that Karl Barth should have regarded “Dogma” as an eschatological concept. The “dogmas” (i.e., the teachings formally adopted and promulgated by individual churches) are witnesses to the Dogma and stand in a relation of greater or lesser approximation to it. But they do not attain to it perfectly—hence, the inherent reformability of all “dogmas.” Orthodoxy is not therefore a static, fixed reality; it is a body of teachings which have arisen out of, and belong to, a history which is as yet incomplete and constantly in need of reevaluation.[3]

This offers a different slant on all that we have been discussing thusly. Barth’s thinking (as distilled by McCormack) on the eschatological character of church ‘dogma’ is an important caveat in all of this. It points up the provisional and proximate nature that church dogma, as that is related to the biblical teaching, entails.

Much more could be said, but let me simply close by saying: as Christians our ultimate authority is the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. Insofar as Holy Scripture is “attached” to the living Word as the ordained Holy ground upon which God has chosen to most definitively bear witness to himself in Jesus Christ, then we as Christians do well to live under this reality; the reality that Jesus is Lord, and his written Word, for our current purposes as Christians, serves as the space wherein Christians might come to a fuller knowledge of God and their relationship to him as he first has related to us. Within this matrix of fellowship, though, we ought to remember the role that tradition plays in this as the inevitable interpretive reality that is always already tied into what it means to be humans before God; and in this thrust, then, we ought to be appreciative and attentive to what God has been working into his church for the millennia; and we ought to appreciate that he continues to speak into his church.

 

[1] Oliver Crisp, god incarnate, (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 17.

[2] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 397-98.

[3] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 16.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

What is God? No. Who is God? The Impasse that Gave Us a Stillborn Evangelical and Reformed Faith

Who is God? Or maybe the question is: What is God? The latter question is what the Post Reformed orthodox theologians were concerned with, and it is this question that we receive an answer for in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. But I am actually more interested in who God is. I’d rather allow who God is to define what God is, rather than allowing what God is to define who He is. The former presupposes that God is personal and revelatory, while the latter could simply operate off of a conception of God or Godness that could potentially be impersonal and discoverable. And yet because the Post Reformed orthodox or classical Calvinist theologians were attempting to answer what God is, this allowed them to slip back into an approach to the God of the Bible that did not necessarily have to start with the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus Christ in order to arrive at the categories it required to grammarize or speak of God for the church. As such, I would contend, the God articulated, say by the WCF, and the ‘what God’ therein, actually offers a rather distorted picture of the God of the Bible in a God-world relation since methodologically it reverts back to a speculative philosophical and a priori conceiving of God and brings that to the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus Christ; and attempts to synthesize the God conception say conceived of by someone like Aristotle with the God of the Bible. Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink summarize this issue nicely when they write:

Through the ages many have tried to synthesize the Greek-philosophical approach to the content of the biblical faith, but these attempts were rarely successful, as the philosophy usually received priority (Augustine being a positive exception). The most impressive example is found in the theology of Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century). However, twentieth-century research has shown that the biblical-theological dimension of Aquinas’s doctrine of God was much more extensive and decisive than had long been assumed. Nonetheless, Aquinas saw the ideas of Aristotle in particular as a significant tool. Arabic scholars were instrumental in rediscovering Aristotle’s work, and Aquinas and others gratefully employed it for the Christian doctrine of God. Aquinas starts with the general question about the being, properties, and acts of God, so that who God is (or is not) is in the first instance discussed with reference to the classic answers of Aristotle’s metaphysics, while the section about God’s interaction with the world uses more biblical language. However, when he deals with the specifically Christian concept of God in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity, Aquinas offers a speculative, philosophical interpretation of the immanent Trinity rather than foregrounding the biblical stories about the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This is also true for many other representatives of medieval Scholasticism.

Among the Reformers, Calvin and especially Luther were very critical of the concepts and speculative character of the scholastic doctrine of the Trinity. But apparently this critique was soon forgotten. Numerous theologians of later Protestant orthodoxy (between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries) adopted the pattern of medieval scholastic thought without much further ado, including its basis in a general , highly transcendent view of God in the locus de Deo. Their preferred description of God is that of an eternal and infinite spiritual being, adding only toward the end any reference to a number of properties regarding God’s turn toward us. This pattern is also visible in the confessional documents of the era. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647), for instance, defines God as “a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (question 4), a statement that, as late as the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Hodge could praise as “probably the best definition of God ever penned by man” (ST: 1:367). It should be noted, however, that this definition is given in reply to the question “What is God? (not “Who is God?”), as is typical of post-Reformation orthodoxy.[1]

This issue continues to dog the development of contemporary “Reformed” theology, and even evangelical theology that operates from that mood as is typified in the work being done for the churches by The Gospel Coalition.

It seems to me that many in the evangelical and contemporary Reformed church, particularly in the West, want to stick with what they see as the tried and true path; what some have referred to as the old paths. But my question is this: as those regulated, in principle, by the Scripture principle—referring to us Protestants—why is there a type of slavish need to be in lock-step with theological reflection that operated in and from a 16th and 17th century milieu wherein Aristotle primarily gets to define what the grammar should be for articulating God for the church of Jesus Christ? It is as if the Confessions and Cathechisms of the Protestant Reformed church have become the new magisterium of the church; that Protestants haven’t just replaced a personal Pope for a paper one (i.e. the Scriptures), but that they have succumbed to the idea that the tradition of the latter day Protestant Reformed church (16th and 17th centuries) was given by God providentially. Yet if this is so what has happened to the ‘scripture principle’ for us Protestants? If we want to absolutize the theology of say the Westminster Confession of Faith as the most proper distillation of the Bible’s teaching, then in what material way can a distinction be drawn between the theology of that Confession and the teaching of Scripture itself? In what meaningful way, if indeed we want to absolutize certain Reformed Confessions, can we maintain that all of the Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformed church are indeed subordinate to Holy Scripture? I don’t think we can.

What Kooi and Brink highlight for us is that there is a problem, in regard to the development of a doctrine of God, for the Protestant Reformed church; both in the past and presently. A mentor and former professor of mine, Ron Frost, argued similarly to Kooi and Brink’s point about a kind of still birth relative to the Protestant Reformation; i.e. a betrayal of the type of critique that Luther made in regard to the substance metaphysics funding late medieval theology relative to a doctrine of God (the metaphysics of Aristotle as deployed and appropriated by Thomas Aquinas et al.). Here is what Frost has to say:

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.”[2]

We see his concern is the same as Kooi and Brink’s. What we also see is that beyond simply focusing on the problem that Aristotle’s categories bring in regard to a doctrine of God (i.e. Kooi and Brink), Frost rightly highlights the linkage that Luther saw between Aristotle’s God and subsequent teachings in regard to developing a theological anthropology and ethics. And this is the point I want to drive home in closing: what we think about God, in regard to who we think God is, determines every other subsequent theological development after that commitment. In other words, a doctrine of God, in a proper dogmatic and theological ordering (taxis) of things is of basic and first order value; who we understand him to be will dictate the way we come to theological conclusions later, whether that be in regard to theological anthropology, salvation, or what have you. This is why I press on this issue so much, it is that central. And I believe that the starting point for so much of what counts as Reformed and evangelical theology today is eschew; and I think it is eschew precisely at the point that this post is highlighting. God help us!

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 134-35.

[2] R.N. Frost, “Aristotle’s “Ethics:” The “Real” Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal (18:2) 1997, p. 224-25.

Chasing the God feeling: How Correct Praise is Orthodoxy, and How Orthodoxy is right Worship

We all want to experience God, at least I do! But since we live in a fallen world experiencing God the right way requires sweat; it requires work. Most people, most Christians I’d venture to say, don’t want to put in the work; they want others to do it for them. They want to be able to go to church, sit down, stand up, raise their hands (if they aren’t Presbyterians or Baptists anyway) and “experience” the warm and fuzzy God feeling. Most Christians don’t want to spend the hard time thinking about, and reading about what the Triunity of God is about; how it developed in the history of the church; or understand how it might shape the very fabric of their identity as coheirs with Christ. But this is all wrong.

If we want to worship God rightly, if we really want to experience and encounter the real and living God we’re going to have to put some time in. If we want more than just chasing after a rush or some feelings once or twice a week, then we’re going to have study. I know, I’m sorry I used the 5-letter word. Now, I realize that most people who read theoblogs aren’t of the type who don’t study and read theology; but I needed to get this off my chest. Dutch theologians Kooi and Brink drive all of this home very well when they write this:

The Greek from which we get the commonly used terms “orthodox” and “orthodoxy” shows us that, strictly speaking, they refer not to correct doctrine but to correct praise. In their origin they refer to the appropriate words and thought patterns for praising God and praying to him, whether by individual believers or in the assemblies of the Christian community. Dogmatics, especially the doctrine of God, is to be regarded as an aid in our worship. Correct doctrine is not a formal system of propositions to which we must give assent but is embedded in our worship. The core of the matter is that we worship the true God, not some kind of idol (honor to whom honor is due!), and that we worship the true God in the right way. The right kind of worship thus demands a right kind of doctrine, an “orthodox” discourse that does justice to the one who is worthy of our praise. It is because of this doxology that we must carefully define our doctrine of God.[1]

This is deeply profound; I love how they tie the lexical reality of “orthodoxy” into the theological reality of doxology and right worship.

Maybe if more Christians understood this, evangelicalism in North America, and elsewhere, wouldn’t currently be imploding. Maybe if leadership and people in the churches took this to heart people who have been in the evangelical church for 30, 40, 50 years would be further along in their knowledge of God than they were on day 1 or 2; or even year 1 or year 5; or whatever. If Christians really want to have a worship service, if they really want to encounter God in some deep and astounding ways then maybe they should crack open a good theology book; and then keep opening them till they have beatific vision one day.

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 129.

Beating a Dead Horse that Has Nine Lives: Pure Being Theology and its Antidote in [Onto]Relational Theology Proper

I have written on this before, but I thought I would broach, once again, the issue of Pure Being theology as understood within the exegetical tradition of the Protestant Reformed church. Here Kooi and Brink offer an inchoate critique of Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of the tetragrammaton (the ‘I am that I am’ statement) in Exodus 3.14. Their mini-critique is one that I agree with, and then the constructive offering that they provide in the whole of the quote is worthwhile:

In accordance with the special character of the divine name, traditional dogmatics has ascribed the property of life (vita) to God. God is, first of all, the Living One. In actual fact we must say that only God lives in the true sense of the word and that our life is a derived and temporal existence that originates in “the fountain of life” (Ps 36:9; cf. Acts 17:28). In this connection Amandus Polanus remarks that in God vita and vivere—the noun (life) and the verb (to live)—coincide (Heppe, RD 5.10). This combination points to a dynamic quality, the same quality that strikes us in Exod 3. Those who with Aquinas (STh I.13.11) follow the Septuagint and render the divine names as “he who is” (qui est), and on that basis define God as the true being (ipsum esse), do not do full justice to this dynamism and make the image of God too static. It becomes quite clear from the context of Exod 3:14 that God promises Moses his saving presence and involvement. Today many Old Testament scholars see shades of meanings other than “being” and “living” in the stem of this verb but these also contain the same connotations of dynamism and involvement (e.g., Feldmeier and Spieckermann 2011, chaps. 1, 29).[1]

This is actually a common critique of Aquinas’s conception of God, and then as corollary, a critique of the Post Reformed orthodox conception of God; insofar as the Post Reformed orthodox pick up this understanding of God from their respective reception[s] of Aquinas’s doctrine of God—particularly as the idea of ‘being’ in the Aristotelian frame is used to fund the Post Reformed orthodox’s theology proper.

But so what? The reason I keep coming back to this over and over and over again is because I obviously think it is a very important point. Yes, contemporary classically Reformed theologians are clearly aware of this critique; as are neo-Thomist theologians. But they simply claim that this just is not so in Aquinas’s nor the PRo’s theologies. But I disagree with their assertion. My disagreement is based upon the reality that PRo theology must continuously refer to the decretum absolutum and the decretal conception of God in order to have the capacity to talk about God’s relationship to the world. In other words they don’t have the ability to speak of God/world relation, at a first order level, in a dynamic-relational grammar or conceptuality; and this is precisely because they start with a concept of God that is indeed necessarily static (at least ad extra or insofar as God relates to creation in the economy of his triune life).

Again, if this is so, at a practical or orthopraxis level, people will think of God and their relation to him, and his relation to them in like terms. In other words, they will think of God in ways that are not, at a first order level, relational or personal or intimate in orientation. Some people might think this is a good thing; that it helps to honor the integrity of the Creator/creature distinction by levying a buffer, as it were, between God and humanity—i.e. by elevating or emphasizing God’s transcendence over his creation. This might be so, and even necessary, if God was a philosophical monad who simply doted over his creation from the heavenlies. But this is not so, God freely chose, as all Christians recognize, to ‘come down’ to us; he chose to be for us, and he chose to be for us from his inner life as God. He chose to meet us from the inner reality of his life as Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit, as the Son in obedience to the Father elected humanity for himself so it could finally be said of God that he is: Immanuel, ‘God with us.’

The most fiduciary reading of God, as disclosed and borne witness to in the Scriptures themselves, then, would be as Kooi and Brink intone, to understand God in relational and dynamic terms; this would be against, in some important ways, the way Christians in the West, in particular, have come to think of God in the Aristotelian/Thomist frame.

 

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 122-23.