Does Theology Perfect Philosophy? Barth’s Nein / Przywara’s Ja

Kenneth Oakes’ book Karl Barth on Philosophy and Theology, which I reviewed a few years ago for the blog, presses the same point that Keith Johnson does in his book Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis. The point is the way Barth sees the relationship between philosophy and theology; he doesn’t, not in the way that post-mediaeval classical theism does in its effort to synthesize so-called faith-and-reason. This is one of the primary factors that has drawn me to Barth over the years. His prolegomenon is conditioned solely by what he considers to be both the formal and material principle of a genuinely Christian theology: i.e. submission to God’s Word. The way he does that is different, of course, than the way someone like Catholic Thomas Aquinas submits to divine revelation, and/or the way that scholastic Reformed theologians do that in the Post Reformation Orthodox period of Protestant development. Again, this point cannot be overstated in regard to the work I have been doing for the last many decades; indeed, my work has been driven by this sort of kataphysical, as TF Torrance would identify it, mode of theological development. That is, I see a need, along with Barth et al., to be slavishly submitted to the reality of Holy Scripture’s object in Jesus Christ. Not just in a cursory way, or as Richard Muller might say it, an “extensive way,” but in a principial or “intensive” way, such that Jesus Christ is understood as the warp and woof of every dot and iota within Holy Scripture. To see Jesus as the regnant telos of the heilsgeschichte found in the deposit of Apostolic (depositus per Apostolicum) witness entailed by its canonical reality.

Johnson helps the reader understand Barth’s mindset as he engaged with the analogia entis (analogy of being1) articulated by his theological nemesis (but friend), Erich Przywara. Here it becomes clearer in just what way Barth thought the relationship of the philosopher to the theologian, and how that, at its very principled base, contradicts the way Przwyara understood the analogia entis as that was conditioned by his ecclesioncentric mode of thinking as a Catholic theologian. Johnson writes,

That Przywara was on Barth’s mind is apparent in the first lecture as Barth explains the title and his objective for the talk. The title, Barth explained, refers to the ‘two boundaries of human thought’, realism and idealism, which form the ‘basic problem of all philosophy’. Barth’s goal is to use those “boundaries’ as the framework from which to ask questions about the proper relationship between philosophy and theology. To flesh out his reason for taking up this task, he draws an analogy between the relationship between theology and philosophy and that of the church and the state. Just as ‘the church finds itself in the framework of the state but does not exist in competition with it . . . so theology understands itself as (the) fundamental reflection about human existence as discussed within the framework of philosophy’. Theology is a human enterprise, and as such, is uses the same tools of language, concepts, and categories that philosophers use in their own attempts to describe the human situation. This correspondence leads to a temptation, Barth says, because while the theologian can speak about the human situation only in the ‘crabbed, constricted, and paradoxical way’ forced upon it by its adherence to divine revelation, the philosopher ‘is in a position to say it all so much better, more freely, more universally’. This situation places the theologian ‘under the insufferable pressure of a situation where [he] can speak only humanly and where this occurs so much better in philosophy’. Hence, just as the church must deal with the temptation of trying either to become the state or be absorbed into it, theology must deal with the temptation of trying either to become philosophy or be absorbed into it. The fact that the shift from theology to philosophy occurs by only a ‘few small shifts in accent’ or a ‘few minor adjustments’ makes it all the more dangerous. Theology can avoid these dangers, Barth says, only if it realizes its true task: adhering to God’s Word. He will develop what this means in more specificity as the lecture progresses, but at this point, he simply means that theology proper is that which ‘thinks and speaks not about those boundaries of human thought, but with all possible objectivity about God’.

The fact that Przywara’s project centers upon the relationship between philosophy and theology — and their point of connection in the analogia entis —is working in the background of Barth’s thoughts here, and the way that he frames this relationship points to a key difference he recognizes between Przywara’s project and his own. As we have seen, Przywara’s account of the analogia entis is built upon the notion that philosophical thought about God failed to recognize the proper relationship between the boundaries of divine immanence and transcendence and thus failed to arrive at any true knowledge of God. The analogia entis is then posited as the alternative that resolves the false dichotomy left by philosophy, since it maintains the proper ‘tension’ between immanence and transcendence. This argument stands directly in line with the Catholic dictum that Przywara cited in Barth’s seminar: ‘revelation does not destroy but supports and perfects reason’. That is, Przywara describes the problem of philosophy, which works form reason, and then proffers the analogia entis, which was derived from divine revelation in Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church, as the solution to that problem. Revelation, in short, works in concert with reason because the two are engaged in the same basic task, and revelation ‘fulfils and perfects’ reason because the Catholic analogia entis accomplishes, on the philosopher’s own terms, what the philosophers themselves could not.2

What must be born in mind is that Barth was a dedicated Protestant theologian, whereas Przywara was, of course, Roman Catholic. What’s at stake in this tussle, as often is the case, is really an anthropological point. Przywara would have been committed to the Thomist Intellectualist anthropology wherein the intellect remained morally solvent, even after the fall. Thus, the noetic effects of sin weren’t as death-dealing for Przywara as they were for Barth. As such, Przywara could and did imagine a world wherein human beings could still think after God even without the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit; that there was still a ‘spark,’ as it were, of the imago Dei operative that simply needed to be ‘restored’ or ‘perfected’ by revelation. For Barth, not only as a Protestant, but a Reformed theologian, this premise does not work. For Barth, as for any principled Protestant Christian, the noetic effects of the fall were so deep and sweeping that humanity itself, in its ruptured status from God, who is the ground and being of all human being, was plunged into an Athanasian ‘subhumanity’; since humanity, according to Scripture is only humanity when it is in right and reconciled relationship with God. Because of this rupture the only hope for a knowledge of God to obtain was if God unilaterally irrupted into humanity, re-create it in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, and give humanity the capacity to rightly think God as God thought Godself for humanity in the risen humanity of Jesus Christ, as humanity is brought into an actualized union with Christ (unio cum Christo) by the Spirit.

The really crazy thing in this story is that the Protestants of the 16th and 17th centuries, namely, the Post Reformed orthodox, took up the anthropology that ended up informing Przywara’s own Catholic anthropology. As such, what has come to be known as historic Protestant Reformed theology, by and large, is really nothing different, in anthropological-principle, than what we find in the analogia entis way of someone like Przywara. I personally know people, Reformed guys, who will argue with me all day about the value and need of some form of the analogia entis. These guys (and gals) are in the process of retrieving the ideational seeds that gave rise to both Thomas Aquinas’ and Erich Przywara’s analogia entis, respectively, as if this is the Protestant way. And so, in my view, they sadly betray the very Protestant principle (the Scripture Principle, and the attendant anthropology with that as far as the extent of the noetic effects of the fall etc.) they say they are intent on retrieving. They ironically operate like Catholic thinkers rather than genuinely Protestant ones as we see in Barth. Przwyara was an intellectualist, just as his counterparts in scholasticism Reformed are, that’s what this is all about in our current theological cultural moment of recovery. But these recoverers don’t understand the sources of their own religion; they don’t understand how they are really just Catholics in Protestant dress.

I digressed, somewhat. But maybe the digression will help the reader see how all of these types of things are related in the end. Maybe the reader will see why I still feel compelled to alert people to what is going on in regard to current theological developments. At the end of the day this isn’t simply a matter of arid academic complexity, ideas have real life consequences that impact real life Christian spirituality.

 

1 Johnson cites Przywara’s basic definition of what he means by analogia entis:

By virtue of the objective and actual ‘God over us and God in us’ of the analogia entis, all aspiration after God, and all experience of God which solves its riddles, is the dynamic and contemplative consciousness of Being described by Paul in the words, ‘He created the human race . . . if haply they might feel after God and find him, though He be not far from every one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17.26-28). Thus all movements towards God, all illumination by God of the human experience which seeks to enlighten itself, presupposes a tranquil condition of ‘God in me and I in God’, because precisely by reason of the nature of the analogia entis, the relationship between God and man is not a function of man’s activity, but of God’s condescension. (Przywara, Religionphilosophie, p. 410)

See, Keith L. Johnson, Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis (New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 78.

2 Ibid., 94-5.

 

A Riposte to Craig Carter: Seeking to Be Richard Muller Redivivus with Reference to Repristinating the “Golden Age” of 16th and 17th C. Scholastic Protestantism

The following from, Craig Carter, epitomizes what I have been writing against ever since I started my online blogging life in 2005. For me, my work against this sort of trope, started in 2001-02 when I started seminary. As I’ve told many a time, my professor, Ron Frost (who would go on to become a mentor and someone I did teaching fellowships for in Historical Theology and Ethics), introduced me to this world. Frost had his own go arounds with the father of this movement, Richard Muller; they had an exchange in Trinity Journal back in 96—97. What Carter is intoning is not original to him whatsoever. This has been a long project, and I’d say one that was primarily initiated, indeed, by Richard Muller. Carter regularly gripes against the Barth and After Barth tradition, but he does so through caricature and appeal to the people (who don’t know any better). He forwards the trope (below) by way of appeal to a golden-Protestant-age that never existed; in the “golden” or ‘pure’ sense that is. I’ll let you read Carter’s tweet (which he tweeted out earlier today), and then provide further response following.

The problem with Evangelicalism is that it has been cut off from its historic roots in the post-Ref orthodoxy of the 16-18th Cen. It emerged out of Protestantism in the 1830’s but has danced on the edge of sectarianism for its whole history. Apart from its roots in historic Protestantism – symbolized in the great confessions of the Reformation era – Evangelicalism is just an amorphous, culture-driven, overly-emotional, style of religion that ranges from orthodox to heretical & back again. This is why being rooted in Prot. orthodoxy is crucial to Evangelicalism having a claim to be catholic Xianity, rather than a cult or sect. To confess a Ref. confession (eg. Augsburg, Belgic, Westminster, 2LCF) is to confess the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity & Xology. The problem in the 19th & even more in the 20th C was that Evangelicals bought into the lies spawned by the Endarkenment about scholasticism (eg. the hellenization thesis & the idea that the scholastics were rationalistic). The Endarkenment narrative was that Scholasticism is rationalistic hair-splitting rooted in out-dated Aristotelianism & therefore incompatible with mod science. To be really scientific we must throw out all that scholastic mumbo jumbo & embrace science. Evangelicals value worldly prestige & didn’t want to be considered “anti-scientific,” so apologetics became a quest to purchase cultural respectability as the lowest possible cost. Liberals just threw themselves at Darwin’s feet, but Evangelicals just wanted to be “biblical”. Evangelicalism has been a half-way house bet historic Protestantism & secularism for a long time & the conveyor belt taking people from orthodox Xianity to secularism via liberalism continues in operation today. The only way to find stability & stop the drift is to root ourselves in our Protestant heritage & thus be reformed, catholic, Christians. We must get in touch with our 16-18th Cen roots – the theology/spirituality that produced the Reformation confessions. Since the Endarkenment is a dead end intellectually & spiritually, we have to go behind it to the kind of Xianity that existed before the resurgance [sic] of ancient philosophical naturalism in the guise of modern science. That means embracing Protestant scholasticism. Many Evangelical theologians act as if the current, secular society was permanent & stable when it is in the midst of collapse. The last thing we need is to be relevant to it. It is in terminal decay. We live in the dark ages & we need to focus on preserving knowledge. What we need is to recover the faith-reason synthesis that enabled the rise of mod science in the first place. Scholasticism was the project of faith seeking understanding that gave due weight to both revelation & also to reason. It is an interp of the world from a Xian per. Our focus should be on the Prot. scholastics like Vermigli, Van Mastricht, Owen, Turretin, Gerhard, etc. They combine the soteriological & ecclesial insights of the Reformers with the best of the medieval doctrines of God & Christ, which in turn link back to the fathers. Publishers, seminaries, doctoral programs, & res institutes all have a role to play. If you are thinking of doing grad work, learn Latin as priority #1. Then do a thesis on a patristic, med. or post-Ref. scholastic figure/issue. We need more translations & critical editions. Remember, it is the dark ages. Much has been lost that needs to be remembered. The world is not interested in the riches of the patristic/scholastic tradition. But the spiritual vitality of the church depends on its vital connection to its doctrinal basis. (Craig Carter, Tweet accessed 01-21-2022)

One thing I can agree with Carter on is that evangelicalism has a serious problem. The antidote to this problem though isn’t to repristinate a never-past found in some sort of monolithic period of Protestant development known as Protestant scholasticism. Indeed, that was a development of the original Protestant past, post the magisterial Reformation, but that development was much more interesting than the panned version Carter et al. wants people to believe.

At this point let me share a mini-paper I once wrote interacting with Richard Muller’s attempt to do pretty much the exact same thing Carter is now trying to do redivivus (for a new, millennial audience). The focus of this ‘paper’ had to do, in specifics, with the Calvin versus Calvinist debate. But what should become apparent (and this is why I’m sharing it) is that the history Carter takes for granite is messier and more problematized than he presents it to his readers as. What this paper doesn’t get into, and what I have written on at length in other posts, is how so-called Reformed orthodoxy in the 16th and 17th centuries was not a monolithic development as Carter would have us believe. Janice Knight, Ron Frost, Thomas Torrance, Brian Armstrong, Charlie Bell, John Hesselink, Stephen Strehle, Dwight Bozeman, Norman Fiering et al. have ably demonstrated the diverse nature of the Reformed faith and its development in the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively. Muller, Carter, Carl Trueman et al. simply gloss past the rough edges of the Protestant development hoping that their revision will present a unified continuous orthodoxy which flailing evangelicals in the 21st century can look back to, repristinate, and hearken as a bulwark against the ravages of the “Endarkenment.” The problem with that, again, is that there is no such clean history in the Protestant (or Catholic or Orthodox world for that matter) to appeal to for the beleaguered Christian soul. And this is to the point: the answer is simply Jesus Christ and the triune God. This is exactly what is under contest. This isn’t an artifactoid of history, as Carter would have people believe. God has never abandoned His people, and has spoken (Deus dixit) in all periods of His Church’s history, up until the present. There is no besmirched body of Divine marrow waiting in the 16th and 17th centuries to save the Protestant’s soul as Carter would have people believe. There has been constructive Christian Dogmatic development all along the way, even through the so-called “Endarkenment,” that Carter just glosses past as a demonic invention.

Let me share that mini paper, at length, just to give you a feel for how far this thesis goes back; the one that Carter is redivivus. I will have to write a book one day (beyond the edited books Myk and I have done) showing just how erroneous Carter’s et al. claims are in regard to the golden era of the Protestant 16th and 17th centuries. Until then, here is one early effort at problematizing things in this area, with reference to Calvin versus the Calvinists.

Introduction: Stating the Problem, Complexity and Conceptuality in the Readings of the ‘Reformed Tradition’

Engaging the period of Protestant history known as the ‘Reformed period’ has many and complex issues involved with it. Not least of which is how we should understand the relationship between what Richard Muller has called the ‘early’, ‘high’, and ‘late’ eras of this broader category that makes up the ‘Reformed period’. In other words, in the literature there has been reconstruction of this period, and the inter-relationship that inheres between the “three eras” just noted, that is in competition.

The “competition” revolves around how we should understand the continuity or discontinuity between the earlier Reformers and the high and later Reformers (the latter two classifications known as the ‘post-Reformed orthodox’). The so-called older school of interpretation made up by folks like Thomas Torrance and Brian Armstrong (and even Karl Barth) are caricatured to have interpreted this issue in overly simplistic form, and through a biased dogmatic appropriation of the “history.” Muller writes,

The older scholarship, exemplified by the writings of Ernst Bizer, Walter Kickel, Brian Armstrong, Thomas Torrance, and others has typically modified the term “orthodoxy” with the pejorative terms “rigid” and “dead,” and modified references to “scholasticism” with the equally pejorative terms “dry” or “arid.” Such assessment bespeaks bias, but it also reflects a rather curious sequence of metaphors. The implied alternative to such a phenomenon as “scholastic orthodoxy” would, perhaps, be a flexible and lively methodological muddle of slightly damp heterodoxy.[1]

Muller takes issue with these “older approaches,” and seeks to clarify this issue by revisiting and sharpening how the key language of “scholastic” and “orthodox” should be understood within their historical context. He believes that the “older scholarship” has too quickly and anachronistically read their respective theological agendas into the history, thus subverting the history for their own usage; in the end what they give us, according to Muller is a revisionist reconstrual of the actual history.

Carl Trueman along the lines provided by Muller forwards the same thesis in regard to the way this issue has been framed and interpreted by the “older” school. He believes that people like Torrance and Armstrong have co-opted the “history” to provide credibility to their own theological constructive work; he seeks to correct this paradigm,

In the last twenty-five years many scholars . . . have moved away from the traditional models whereby Protestant scholasticism was judged by the standards of later theology, whether Barthian, neo-Calvinist or whatever, to developmental models which attempt to set the movement within the context of its own times and within the ongoing Western theological tradition.[2]

It is this problematic that Muller, Trueman, and company seek to “revise” through providing, what they believe is the proper way to frame and understand this oversimplified approach that the older school has bequeathed upon us.

I will seek to elucidate how Muller, specifically, seeks to reify the understanding provided by the “old school,” and what in fact he believes is the proper way for moving forward. But, before we get there we should visit, for a moment, how this “older scholarship” sought to appropriate the “history” represented by the “Reformed period.” What is it that Muller and others are protesting in regard to the ways that these elder “theologians” and “church historians” approached this salient issue?

Answering this question is really not that difficult, at least not for Muller; he holds that the oversimplification provided by the “old school” was both a definitional and methodological quagmire. That is that the “old way” of interpretation was shaped by over-simply framing the issue by a misunderstanding of what “scholasticism” actually was, and by trying to orientate all of their reconstruction around how the “post-Reformed orthodox” (the ‘high and late’ reformers) related, or not, to John Calvin. In other words, their error, according to Muller is that they tried to correlate Calvin’s theology and methodology with the ‘reformers’ who followed him; and insofar as the post-Calvin reformers failed to cohere with Calvin’s “apparent” theological approach, this became the point of departure that served to disrupt and in fact thwart the “doctrinal” focus set by the early Reformers (e.g., Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, et al.). In short, the early Reformers were focused on confessional and christological concerns; while the latter Reformers became embroiled with rationalistic and speculative concerns that were not in continuity with the trajectory that was seminally set early on. Here’s Muller,

Scholarly perspectives on the phenomenon of post-Reformation Protestantism have altered dramatically in the last three decades. Studies of the Reformed or Calvinistic theology of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries written before 1970 or even 1975 tended to pose the Reformation against Protestant orthodoxy or, in the phraseology then common to the discussion, “Calvin against the Calvinists.” This rather radical dichotomy between the thought of the great Reformer and even his most immediate successors — notably, Theodore Beza — was constructed around a particular set of highly theologized assumptions, concerning the Reformation and Protestant orthodoxy, humanism and scholasticism, piety and dogma. At the heart of the dichotomizing argument was a contrast between the “biblical humanism” and christological piety of John Calvin and the Aristotelian scholasticism and predestinarian dogmatizing of nearly all of the later Reformed theologians, the sole exceptions being those who followed out the humanistic patterns of Calvin’s thought into fundamentally antischolastic modes of thought.[3]

Thomas Torrance, in line, somewhat, with Muller’s characterization certainly held that people like Muller (or the view that he represents) were the ones who have revised the “history” around this pivotal period; and in fact for the same reasons that Muller says that people like Torrance tried to revise this period — viz. for theological purposes. Torrance says in the context of his “Scottish church”,

It was the imposition of a rigidly logicalised federal system of thought upon Reformed theology that gave rise to many of the problems which have afflicted Scottish theology, and thereby made central doctrines of predestination, the limited or unlimited range of the atoning death of Christ, the problem of assurance, and the nature of what was called ‘the Gospel-offer’ to sinners. This meant that relatively little attention after the middle of the seventeenth century was given to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and to a trinitarian understanding of redemption and worship. Basic to this change was the conception of the nature and character of God. It is in relation to that issue that one must understand the divisions which have kept troubling the Kirk [church] after its hard-line commitment to the so-called ‘orthodox Calvinism’ of the Westminster Standards, and the damaging effect that had upon the understanding of the World of God and the message of the Gospel.[4]

We see Torrance exemplifies exactly what Muller charges him, and others like him with; and that is the notion that Torrance believes that the “federal system of thought” (or the post-Reformed orthodox) placed the “Reformed church” on a problematic trajectory, a trajectory discontinuous with the original shape set by John Calvin.

This is too simple according to Muller. Similarly, Brian Armstrong — another “historian” in Muller and Trueman’s cross-hairs — follows suit with Torrance’s conception, and in fact up until Muller came along represents the scholarship which articulated a view that placed Calvin against the later “Calvinists.” His basic thesis, and the one that Muller seeks to problematize and correct is that once Calvin went off the scene, his successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza reintroduced Aristotelian scholasticism into the “Reformed” project, at odds with Calvin the Humanist (which was a method which sought to go back to the “sources” ad fontes or scripture and the Church Fathers), and schematized Reformed theology by what has been called the centraldogma. This was the idea that we could construe God through a rigid and deductive system of thought oriented and shaped around a deterministic supralapsarianism (or double-predestination) which was incompatible with his predecessor’s (Calvin’s) own understanding. Furthermore, Armstrong believes that Beza’s orientation was motivated by his devotion to Aristotle. Let me quote Armstrong at length:

This brief look at Calvin’s religious thought [which Armstrong just sketched] should make it clear that his whole theological program is at odds with the orientation of scholasticism as it has been characterized above. In general we must say, however, that scholasticism, not Calvin’s theology, prevailed in Reformed Protestantism. We are not here prepared to judge why Reformed theology developed as it did but only to recognize the phenomenon itself. Men like Martyr, Zanchi, Beza, Antoine de Chandieu, and Lambert Danaeus represent this divergence from a theology which had been carefully constructed by Calvin to represent faithfully the scriptural teaching and so usually presented a certain tension or balance of doctrines. . . . Of these men it was probably Beza who was most influential, and for this reason one may lay much of the blame for scholasticism at his feet. His very influential position as professor of theology at, and unquestioned supervisor of, the Genevan Academy gave him uncommon opportunity to direct the theological program of the Reformed Church. It was he who was responsible for the return to Aristotelian philosophy as the basis of the Genevan curriculum in logic and moral philosophy. As is well known, it was Beza who refused the humanist Peter Ramus a teaching post at the Genevan Academy because of Ramus’ anti-Aristotelian program.[5]

It is clear from Armstrong’s assertion that Muller has understood both of his interlocuters correctly in regard to their view of the Calvin and the Calvinists. Both Torrance and Armstrong believed that Calvin, conceptual-doctrinally, presented a different flavor and emphasis when juxtaposed with those who have come to be known as the “Calvinists.”

What I will argue later is that Muller is right to highlight the fact that the precision that folks like Torrance and Armstrong use in articulating their thoughts on this is probably too precise, and in fact comes short in doing justice to how this whole complex should be understood. Nevertheless, what I will point out, relative to Muller, is that even though he will try and argue that the issue of discontinuity that supposedly is present between Calvin and the Calvinists is simply one of different methodology and not one of conceptuality. More than that though, he wants us to believe that even though there is discontinuity between Calvin and the Calvinists on methodological concerns (e.g. Calvin being ‘confessional’ and the Calvinists being “dogmatic”); that when this issue is broadened what becomes apparent is that even method (between all of the early Reformers [not just Calvin] and the high and later Reformers) should be construed as continuous, and that the context for understanding this needs to be placed back into the late medieval period, and not simply from the ‘early Reformed era’ (as Torrance and Armstrong have done). When we do this, we will see a thread of methodological concern that weaves all the way through the whole period; starting with the appropriation of Aristotelian method, which is consonant with both Agricolan and Ramist place logic and dialectical methodology. What is interesting about Muller’s argument, as I have already alluded to, is that he wants to say that all of this discontinuity talk — between Calvin and the Calvinists — should be jettisoned because of what I just mentioned (that the “old school” thesis faltered because they are short-sighted in their thinking, and they believe that the issue revolves around the “apparent” conceptual and material difference that obtains between Calvin and the Calvinists). Yet, what comes later in his book After Calvin is that Muller says that, in fact, by-and-large Aristotelian philosophy of some appropriation or form is present in most of the “later Reformers” who supposedly merely developed Calvin’s thinking (which of course the difference, previously, according to Muller was just a methodological one given the different historical concerns they were faced with). What this tells me is that Muller is playing fast and loose here. I think, and I’ll argue some of this later, that he is right in noting that there is more complexity and background than Torrance and/or Armstrong allowed into their interpretation of this issue; but that he is inconsistent because he actually smuggles “conceptual” stuff back into the criteria for adjudicating the question of continuity or discontinuity between Calvin and the Calvinists.

 


[1] Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition, 25.

[2] Carl R. Trueman and R. S. Clark, Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, xviii.

[3] Richard A. Muller, After Calvin, 3.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell, x-xi)

[5] Brian Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy, 37-8 (Brackets and emphasis mine).

On a Knowledge of God: How I’m Genuinely Protestant and the Scholastics Reformed and Lutheran Aren’t!

Knowledge of God, in my mind, remains the obvious cornerstone for all theological endeavor. If theology is the study of God, as an idios of Christian reflection and Christian existence, then how one presumes, or theorizes a knowledge of God (how that obtains) becomes the very fundamentum, the pre-dogmatic grundaxiom (a denotative non-Rahnerian sense) of all subsequent theological discourse. For our Volume 1 Evangelical Calvinism book my personal chapter was on this very locus: viz. analogia entis analogia fidei/relationis. That was back in 2012. I still cannot get over the gravity of this issue, one that most Christians, theologians included, glide right past. Whether it be Calvin’s duplex cognitio Dei (twofold knowledge of God), Luther’s theologia crucis (theology of the cross), Barth’s analogia fidei/relationis (analogy of faith/relation), TF Torrance’s kataphysin (according to the nature of) stratified knowledge of God, or Aquinas’ and Przywara’s analogia entis (analogy of being), respectively, among other theories of knowledge of God, all of these illustrate the significance, and even disparity, of how various theologians, and theological traditions have attempted to, and continue to think God. 

Γνωρίζω γὰρ ὑμῖν, ἀδελφοί, τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τὸ εὐαγγελισθὲν ὑπ’ ἐμοῦ ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν κατὰ ἄνθρωπον: οὐδὲ γὰρ ἐγὼ παρὰ ἀνθρώπου παρέλαβον αὐτό, οὔτε ἐδιδάχθην, ἀλλὰ δι’ ἀποκαλύψεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. Galatians 1:11-12 

For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. Galatians 1:11-12 

The way the Apostle Paul received knowledge of God, the Gospel, was not by a discursive route of reasoning towards an actus purus (pure being) God, which is what we get in the so-called analogia entis. For Paul, knowledge of God came to him ‘apocalyptically,’ that is, it came to him as in-breaking/imposing unilateral revelation of God in Jesus Christ. This way of knowledge of God is not unique to Paul’s experience, it is the ‘way’ that shapes all of canonical Scripture. The God of the Bible just shows up without explanation. He doesn’t show up in the philosopher’s mind as a result of logico-deductive postulation, on the philosopher’s part. He doesn’t show up as a philosophical monad, or an Unmoved Mover who is actually infinite. He shows up as a personal God, who Self-reveals and explicates on His terms.  

The classical theistic theologians, who I take to be philosophers of religion rather than Christian theologians, would attempt to characterize the ‘way’ of God’s in-breaking into the world, and the knowledge of God that obtains therefrom in Jesus Christ, as a quaint type of what they identify as theistic personalism. They would, petitio principii, presume that the burden is on anyone who would attempt to think God along the lines of the narrative of canonical Scripture, rather than think God from their self-asserted notion of God as that has taken shape in the antique of the Church’s tradition. Interestingly, I am referring not to Catholic theologians, in the main, but to self-professing Protestant theologians; theologians who claim to be adherent to the ‘Scripture Principle.’ But when it comes to the very ground and grammar for thinking God, they don’t follow the contours of Holy Scripture’s attestation to the way of God, in a God-world relation, vis-à-vis a knowledge of God, instead they think along with Thomas Aquinas and the so-called Great Tradition of the Church. There is nothing meaningfully Protestant about the way most so-called Reformed, and anyone recovering the scholastic methodology of theologizing (whether they be Lutheran or whomever), go about thinking God; it is simply a brute appeal to the Great Trad. In my view, this makes the current “Protestant” recovery movement of “classical theism” (after Aquinas, so a neo-Thomism) what we might call a Gnesio-Catholicism. In other words, I don’t see so-called Reformed Catholics as Protestant, I see them, in theological mode, particularly in regard to its theory of a knowledge of God, as what they seemingly would take to be an ‘authentic Catholic.’ This seems to be built into the Reformed Catholic mode; that is, as a logical conclusion to the Protestant Reformation. A return to the scholasticism of late mediaeval Catholicism, methodologically, while presuming to have achieved reformational status in regard to working and thinking from a self-asserted “biblicism” (‘Scripture Principle’), and its attendant Federal theological themes.  

My approach, contrariwise to the aforementioned Gnesio-Catholics, that is to thinking God, might be characterized as a nuda Scriptura or solo Scriptura rather than Reformed sola Scriptura commitment. But of course, again, this is all relative. Since my approach, in regard to a knowledge of God, as that is focused on some form of an analogia fidei/relationis, remains a constructively Dogmatic ensemble. So, I’m not a Reformed Baptist, or non-Calvinist, as that flutters around in the popular domain, in regard to their type of quasi-Socinian solo Scriptura mode as that is funded by post-Enlightenment rationalist categories. My approach, I take it, is genuinely Protestant, insofar that I think from within the ‘mind of the Church,’ as long as that is understood as oriented by the reality of canonical Scripture as that attests to its gravitas, its res ‘reality’ in Jesus Christ. I take this to be Protestant in the sense that my theory of authority is no longer based on ecclesiastical pronouncements, but instead it is grounded in the Holy of Scripture, it is grounded in the fact of Deus dixit, ‘God has spoken,’ and continues to speak. This is the Protestant way, and the spirit of the ‘Scripture Principle.’ It is the notion that the viva vox Dei (living voice of God) is present in the context of His life and history for the world as that is given afresh anew in His continuous Self-revelation for the world, with particular focus on the Church, through the Christian’s encounter of Him as the communio sanctorum fellowships with Him around and within the confines of Holy Scripture. This is how the Apostle Paul, not to mention Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, the Prophets so on and so forth came to know God. It was as He established and brought them into His Covenant Life of Grace, as mediated afresh anew through the lightning bolt of the immediate mediation of Jesus Christ. This is the Protestant Scripture Principle in action, and actualism (I’m not shy).  

Just some more of my running thoughts, and where I currently stand as a genuinely Protestant Christian.  

A Response to the Reformed Baptists: Against Naked Scripture Reading

What’s going on with these Reformed Baptists? I’m referring to people like James White, Rich Pierce (White’s sidekick), Owen Strachan et al. I just had a fun exchange with White’s guy, Pierce on Twitter. It’s always the same thing with these guys. I cut my teeth in the blogosphere with these types of extended engagements with the JMac crew over at the Pyromaniacs blog back in the day. White, and his whole Alpha and Omega crew, along with the Apologia guys, and then people like Strachan and Jeff Johnson, and all their followers in the so-called Reformed Baptist camp suffer from the same sort of arrogant naivete. They all operate with this notion that it’s possible for the biblical interpreter to read Scripture without a hermeneutic. In other words, they simply believe that they purely read the 5 Points of Calvinism out of the text of Scripture (or a modified/heretical understanding of the Trinity, in some cases). They don’t acknowledge any reception history from its development in the Reformed history of ideas. In fact, they are anti-Confessional (except maybe for the London Baptist Confession of Faith, the parts that resonate with them). Here’s a sampling of my recent excursion with that really nice guy, Rich Pierce:

This guy took this tone with me immediately, in a previous tweet exchange. This is how it always goes with them. The irony is that they operate out of an Enlightenment rationalist/naturalist hermeneutic, not confessionally Reformed whatsoever. They fail to recognize that all reading is interpretation, and that confessional Christian reading is simply the mode that has given the orthodox categories we use to think the Trinity and Christological loci like the hypostatic union, homoousios so on and so forth. Instead, they read from the confessionalism provided for by the naturalism inherent to the Enlightenment; being confessional is an inescapable reality of interpretation (any kind of interpretation). The only people in Reformation history who claimed to read the Bible outwith confessionalism were the Socinians (and maybe the Anabaptists before them). That’s the spirit people like White, Pierce, Strachan et al. operate from. Indeed, in Strachan’s case, and now White is defending him, he arrives at his eternal functional subordinationism (EFS) of the Son, precisely because of their anti-ecclesial confessional reading of Holy Scripture. No matter how much testosterone these guys muster up to counter critiques like mine, just as Pierce does above, the facts of the theo-logic, they are ignoring, remain.

What they don’t understand is how the order of authority works. People like White/Pierce seem to think that if you use conciliar categories (like we get from Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon etc.) that somehow you are denying the Protestant Scripture Principle (or more colloquially, sola Scriptura), but that is to engage in a radical error of thought. The ecumenical confessions/creeds, for example, are subordinate to Holy Scripture insofar that they are attempting to supply a grammar for the inner-theo-logic of the text. In other words, given the occasional nature of the text, which it always is, even if the occasion turns out to be purely canonical, the authors of Scripture make theological assertions; that is, they leave many things either inchoate or unstated in their respective communications about God. What the creeds/confessions do, in principle, is come along and recognize that things are stated about God, in Scripture, that require a grammar; particularly so that the Church can know the difference between truth and error; not to mention, so that the Church can speak and think intelligibly about God. There is no inherent denial of the Protestant Scripture principle in this endeavor. The only real problem that can and has obtained, at points, is that the ‘metaphysic’ used to flesh out said biblical theo-logic could potentially be at odds with the Scriptural categories and witness vis-à-vis God. This has always been the basis of my critique with reference to the developments of scholasticism Reformed dogma in the 16th and 17th centuries. But this sort of thinking goes right over the heads of people like White, Pierce, Strachan et al.

In order to end this post on a positive note, let me share something I’ve shared multiple times in the past from Oliver Crisp. He offers a nice taxis, in regard to how to think the relationship of Holy Scripture to the creeds, confessions, and theologoumena. And with this we’ll close:

  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]

It would be nice if the Reformed Baptists under consideration could internalize the above, but they won’t. Instead, they will continue to appeal to their egos and insecurities and respond the way Pierce did to me in the aforementioned. Unfortunately, these things have real life consequences; like denying an orthodox understanding of the Holy Trinity (as we now see in Strachan, and White’s defense of him). This is why sometimes I’ll bring this sort of discussion up for consideration. Peoples’ eternal souls are literally at stake in many cases.

 

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

The Seed of the Classical Theistic God Given Blossom in the god of Modern Atheism

I have been an oft critic of the ‘classical theistic’ god. The classical theistic God is typically known by actus purus, ‘pure being.’ I have argued that this conception of Godness as Monad comes to us from the ancient Greek philosophers, and not from God’s Self-revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ. Some would say that my argument is modern, but that would simply be the chronological snobbery fallacy. Truth has no provenance; that is, truth is truth no matter where or whence it comes. Bruce McCormack describes this sort of critique this way (here his comments are in the context of his treatment on Eberhard Jüngel’s explication of Barth’s doctrine of God): 

The term “essence” in its origins is a class term, descriptive of what is common to all members of a class. As such, it is an abstraction from all exemplars belonging to that class in their lived existence. Applied to God, the qualification was traditionally added: “but, of course, God belongs to no class. God is unique.” But the qualification came too late for it did not qualify the definition of divine essence that had been devised by means of negations alone without reference to God’s existence. Jüngel shows that the classical ambivalence in holding and, at the same time not holding the claim that essence and existence are one in God gave rise in the early modern period to Descartes’ insinuation of the cogito (the “thinking human subject”) between divine “essence” and divine “existence” — thereby creating “a contradiction which disintegrates the being of God: namely, into a highest essence over me and into its existence through and with me.” Ibid., p. 126. From there, it was but a short step for modern thinkers to remove the contradiction through surrender of this highest essence. In this way, the ambivalence of classical treatments of the relation of essence and existence in God made a substantial contribution to the rise of modern atheism.1 

Usually, it is the evangelical opponents of modern theology in favor of their retrieval of classical theism who decries anything modern; like Jüngel’s critique of the classical theistic god. Yet, if Jüngel is right, and McCormack’s commentary on him is to the point, then it is these evangelical retrievers of classical theism who, if anyone, should be ‘demonized’; insofar that the God they are introducing the churches to reduces to the god of modern atheism. Just because the evangelical suitors of classical theism (indeed, they have created that designation) assert that modern theology is demonic, doesn’t make it so. The greatest irony here is that in fact it is the god of classical theism who reduces, quite easily, into the “thinking human subject”; or the god of the modern atheist.  

In my experience, nobody really wants to bite the bullet on these things. Most evangelical theologians today (of the Reformed provenance) simply live in a posture of denial. They feel the pressure to think God from antique roots, because they seem to think God spoke more clearly then than now, but then when a modern theologian[s] shows that the way this God was synthesized with Hellenic conceptualities results in the No-God of modern atheism, they simply deflect and claim that it is the modern theologian who is the devil. Both can’t be right. I’ve never seen an evangelical counter the sort of critique made by people like Jüngel, McCormack et al. There are guys like Craig Carter, Matthew Barrett, Scott Swain and Michael Allen, who are continuously pushing the classical theistic god for the massa of evangelicals out there. But again, this simply glosses past critiques like those made by people like EJ.  

 

1 Bruce Lindley McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son: Reformed Kenoticism and the Repair of Chalcedon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 170-71 n.41.

On Real Reformed Theology: Getting Past its Reception-Thomist Orthodoxy

At this point I’ve been at it online since 2005. My bread-and-butter writing has revolved around issues pertaining to Reformed theology, with a particular focus on critiquing what I like to call ‘classical Calvinism’ (as a riff on its informing ‘classical’ theistic theology). I was mentored in seminary, and after, by a Puritan expert, and historical theologian (for whom I also worked as a teaching fellow). I have published two edited books, with Myk Habets, on what we identify as a mood in the history of theological ideas known as ‘Evangelical Calvinism.’ This is my way. Clearly, I have interests, many, in various other theological loci, but the issues orbiting around the scholastic Reformed theology will probably always serve as a sort of mainstay for me; at least in the background sound of my theological life.  

You might ask why? Well, on the negative side, I wanted to understand my own informing theological background. I didn’t grow up as a 5-point Calvinist, but instead a Calminian Baptist; or what we endearingly liked to call: a Biblicist. Nevertheless, the fall-out produced by the binary debate between Calvinism and Arminianism was the playground that etched my life as a Christian, for better or worse; it was for worse. Once I was introduced to historical theology, I came to realize that theologies didn’t form in a vacuum, they have a history. Once I came to know that history (as I continue to work at) I was able to achieve sufficient distanciation, to the point that I could critically engage with the superstructural ideas that gave rise to the popular debates that took and take place between Calvinists and Arminians; instead, I became a Barthianish-Torrancean LOL. Even as I note my current influences, as alternative to the classical debates, what shouldn’t be presumed in this, is that you have to be a Barthian or Torrancean in order to come to the insights I have in regard to the history that stands behind so-called classical Calvinism. For example, aforementioned mentor, is not a Barthian or Torrancean in any way; he is, if anything, a Sibbesian.  

What I continue to see in the young crop of budding-theologians, those with interests in these areas, is a failure to grasp the contours present in the history and development of Reformed theology proper. The Deus ex machina narrative that they are being fed is that scholasticism Reformed, or what I like now to call Reception-Thomist theology, is in fact the only or dominant iteration of what in fact the total Reformed theology is. What Evangelical Calvinists, like Myk and me, have been intent on showing is that this is an absolute revisionist understanding and presentation of the Calvinist history. My mentor, Ron Frost, has been showing this, although mostly only in teaching settings, for decades; and like I noted, his critique has been from a non-Barthian perspective. Until the youngins get their heads around the fact that they’ve been being fed a fake-narrative about Reformed history, in regard to its character and development, they will continue to fight battles, and make statements that have no correspondence to the concrete depth reality of the matter.  

My hope is that younger theologians will come along, and recognize what I’ve come to recognize about the development of Reformed theology. Life is short, so it’s best to get to the facts as quick as possible. Otherwise, one might spend their whole days doing theology in an eclipse of the actual realities. I did this for a long time as a dispensationalist. It isn’t that the Lord can’t work in spite of bad theology, and bad ideas, it’s just that it’s better to work from good theology and good ideas. If you sense some triumphalism in what I’m saying, you’re just sensing it.  

I was going to write a post on Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology; maybe next time.   

Addressing the Withering Assurance of Salvation Among the Saints: From a Position of Christ Concentration

I once wrote something on assurance of salvation for publication, you can read that here. Assurance of salvation has always been an important soteriological locus for me; primarily because my dad struggled with this issue in very deleterious ways. I experienced struggles with this myself for a season of dark nighted soul, but came to experience denouement as I came to internalize what a genuinely Christ conditioned notion of salvation implied. Unfortunately, my dad never personally experienced this, and the enemy of our souls was able to effectively torture my dad with this for decades. Far from being an academic issue for me, it is highly personal. I know my dad wasn’t unique, there are many who struggle with this issue; although probably not to quite the extent that my dad did.

My “way out,” as I alluded to previously, was to come to a concrete understanding of who God is pro me in Jesus Christ. Once I saw myself in and from God’s Yes and Amen for me in His Yes and Amen in Jesus Christ, it was at this point that I started down a trajectory wherein the smiling face of Jesus shown through everywhere; even when the enemy would attempt to toss his darts my way. This trajectory first started with learning Martin Luther’s theology, and then into John Calvin’s. As I gained their respective foci on a Christ concentrated theology, it was in this reality that the dogged days of lack of assurance eviscerated into the thin air of the devil’s nothingness. Beyond that, I immersed myself in the study of Puritan and Post Reformed Orthodox theology; this was guided by my mentor and seminary professor, Ron Frost (a Puritan expert). Once I realized the role that Federal (Covenantal) theology played in concocting the mercantile categories that funded things like experimental predestinarianism, the practical syllogism, the divine pactum, so on and so forth, my assurance issues took on new light. I realized that much of what I was thinking about salvation was grounded in a Monsanto-like ground poisoned with ingredients that had no rootage in God’s Self-revelation in Christ; but instead in philosophical categories that led to thinking God in terms of a decretrum absolutum (or in terms of an impersonal deterministic decree that was grounded in a forensic rather than love relationship within a God-world relation). Once all of these things, and more, came to blossom in my understanding, it was at this point that I was able to quit straining under false-pressures that were not induced by the revealed God whatsoever. Once these pressures were depressurized I was finally able to rest in the finished work of Jesus Christ, as that had been fully actualized in His vicarious humanity pro me; and particularly as that was and is grounded in the triune bond of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Once I knew this was the reality the enemy no longer had a topos or foothold of fear in my life in this way. I had hoped to encourage my dad with these truths, and I did. At a level it did come to help him, but not fully because these seeds remained unwatered and uncultivated in his life.

Karl Barth, whilst working constructively with the categories he had received from the Post Reformed Orthodox theologians (of the 16th and 17th centuries) came to the focus that I have been broadly describing above. He was no fan of the Remonstrant or Arminian theology, and says so bluntly; and he would side with their counterparts in the Dortian Post Reformed theology. But again, because of Barth’s wholesale reformulation of a doctrine of election, seeing Jesus as both the object and subject, and thus sum of the Gospel, he was able to receive the Post Reformed Orthodox theology, but from a recasted vistapoint that genuinely offered a truly Christ concentrated ground that neither the Remonstrants nor Dordtians were able to present. He writes:

Now obviously we can only affirm and adopt this intepretation of the matter. It is palpable that what the Remonstrants brought against it was unspiritual, impotent and negligible—a feeble postlude to the Catholicism of the late Middle Ages, and a feeble prelude to rationalist-pietistic Neo-Protestantism. Since God—”the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1.3)—cannot deceive Himself, cannot be conjured, and cannot be unfaithful either to Himself or to us, it is of the essence of election that there can be no fundamental, eternal reversal. The Yes of God to His elect cannot be transformed into an absolute No. Because, then, they have the absolute divine Yes in their ears and in their hearts, they both may and should be assured in faith of their election, and therefore of eternal salvation—not in harmony with their evil human No to God, but in spite of it, and in this way in genuine and successful conflict with it. Even the objection of the Lutherans is valueless, and hardly worthy of Luther himself. If the faith of the elect lives with Jesus Christ as its basis and with Jesus Christ as its goal, it is impossible to see how it can be absolutely lost. A faith that can be lost is as little comfort in ultimo vitae puncto [at the last point of life] as it is relevant in the rest of life. Does not faith, both in life and death, consist in the fact that—non quoad nos [not from our point of view] but respectu Dei [with respect to God], trusting in His Word, His decision behind and before us, and armed on this account for the good warfare of faith—we know continually, and not merely occasionally, that our case is sure. Can we more effectively cheapen faith than by denying its constancy? We cannot be sufficiently grateful to Calvin for presenting the statement of perseverentia [perseverance] in this manner, and advancing beyond both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.1

And likewise, we cannot be sufficiently grateful to Barth for advancing beyond Calvin for offering a revised Reformed theological framing wherein Christ genuinely and actualistically is the centraldogma of the whole cake of theological endeavor.

For Barth, and for anyone interested in inhabiting a concretely Christ conditioned soteriological understanding, Jesus Christ is the Alpha and Omega of the whole salvation all the way down. The Logos enfleshed starts salvation, and has finished it for us in His risen life of recreated bounty. This is where I rest, and I commend this as a place of refuge for all the bruised reeds among us. Solo Christo

 

1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §35 The Doctrine of God: Study Edition Vol. 11 (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 138-39.  

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

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

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

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

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

God’s Trinitarian Sovereignty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

 

1 Barth, CD II/2:1.