St. Bernard of Clairvaux as the Patron Saint of Luther and Calvin, Not Thomas

A friend just reminded, once again, of the role that St. Bernard of Clairvaux played in the formation of both Martin Luther’s and John Calvin’s theology, respectively; the latter quoted or alluded to Clairvaux in his Institutes more than any other author. It was this spiritual, even mystical tradition that stood in the background to the foremost of these magisterial Protestant Reformers; it wasn’t Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. I am bringing this up within the ambit of my last post with reference to the retrieval work being done by people like Matthew Barrett and Craig Carter, for the Baptists. When they retrieve the Great Tradition, they ought to nuance their approach such that the historical theology they are said to be retrieving entails the variety of ideational trails present within the theologizing of history’s various and respective thinkers; this includes lines of tradition that are at odds with the mood, and even material offering of someone like Thomas Aquinas. And yet, for some reason, these folks have fixated on Aquinas, and his Aristotelian heritage.

Here is a sampling of Clairvaux; pay attention to what he is saying about God and knowledge of God. Reflect on whether he sounds like a speculative theologian like Aquinas, or if he sounds more like an Athanasius who is committed to a kataphatic and revelational theology of God’s Word.

Once God was incomprehensible and inaccessible, invisible and entirely unthinkable. But now he wanted to be seen, he wanted to be understood, he wanted to be known. How was this done, you ask? God lay in a manger and lay on the Virgin’s breast. He preached on a mountain, prayed through the night, and hung on a cross. He lay pale in death, was free among the dead, and was master of hell. He rose on the third day, showed the apostles the signs of victory where nails once were, and ascended before their eyes to the inner recesses of heaven. . . . When I think on any of these things, I am thinking of God, and in all these things he is now my God.[1]

This is not the theology of Aquinas. Here is Aquinas’ way to God:

. . . the proposition that “God exists” is self evident in itself, for, as we shall see later, its subject and predicate are identical, since God is his own existence. But, because what it is to be God is not evident to us, the proposition is not self-evident to us, and needs to be made evident. This is done by means of things which, though less evident in themselves, are nevertheless more evident to us, by means, namely of God’s effects.[2]

Aquinas is an apophatic theologian who reasons his way to God (see his Prima Pars) discursively through reflection on the ostensibly given vestiges of God in the created order. His is not a committed theology of the Word that is contingent on God’s intensive Self-revelation in the manger, but one that arises from a latent capacity within humanity to think God from a created grace infused into the elect’s accidents of human being. In other words, for Aquinas, to think God does not require the Word of God, per se, it instead is an ecclesiologically based knowledge of God as the Church’s supposition within a hierarchical chain of being, as that finds its primal orientation in its first cause, God, ostensibly supplies the theoretical bases for the Christian, such as Aquinas, to think God in abstraction from God’s Self-revealed Word in Jesus Christ, as that is attested to in Holy Scripture.

What Barrett, Carter, Sytsma et al. are doing, whether that be on the Baptist or Presbyterian side of the coin, is a repristination effort. It would be one thing if they were engaging in a constructive dialogue with the past, allowing the kerygma, the risen Christ as God’s Word to regulate said discussion; but they aren’t! Instead, they are engaging in a just is, which is another way to say, in a natural theological approach to Church History, and said history’s ideas. They are simply presuming that just because there is such an amorphous thing known as the Great Tradition, that just because it has been seemingly allowed to develop, that God must have been providentially supervening in this development, such that it now has His imprimatur stamped on it as a reality from Him. And so, in the final analysis, what is being done, ironically, is a species of the theology being retrieved itself. It ostensibly imbibes a natural theology, as that is uncritically received as the just is mode of theological endeavor, only to find a theologian like Thomas Aquinas, the theologian of natural theology, and sees in him a patron saint of a long lost orthodoxy. And yet how ironic! Thomas Aquinas is a Roman Catholic theologian who thinks God from a theory of ecclesial authority that is itself funded not by a robust theology of the Word, but by a commitment to a philosophical notional construction of God known as the actus purus (pure being) tradition, in regard to thinking God and everything following.

I am here to help apply the brakes. I am a committed Protestant and Reformed Christian who maintains that a robust theology of the Word, that the ‘Scripture Principle’ ought to fund how a Protestant Christian does Protestant theology. To take on the baggage of Thomas’ synthesis of Aristotle, even if some Post Reformed orthodox theologians did this, is neither safe nor sound. And yet these various theologians are engaging in just this practice, and, apparently, unwittingly foisting Catholic theological categories upon their various students, and whomever will listen to their rallying cries on the highways and byways. I would simply ask you to reconsider the way they are taking you, and ask if maybe, just maybe, there isn’t a thread of Protestant historical development that doesn’t repose upon Thomas’ synthesis. There is; and that is exactly why this blog and our books came to exist. That is, to alert people to an alternative and genuinely Protestant, and dare I say, Christian way to think God. To think God in the way that we saw Bernard of Clairvaux thinking God earlier in this article. Both Luther and Calvin had Clairvaux’s christological concentration when it came to thinking God, and this is most surely at odds with Thomas’ synthesis and the repristinational effort currently underway by those noted (and others not).

 

[1] Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermo in nativitate Beatae Mariae: de Aquaducto, ed. J. Leclerq and H. Rochais, S. Bernardi Opera 5 (Rome: Cistercienses, 1968), 11 cited by Michael Allen in, Justification.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 7

On Matthew Barrett’s Thomistic Baptistism: The Christologically Concentrated Alternative

I grew up Conservative Baptist (CBA), the son of a CBA pastor and church planter. We weren’t of the Reformed variety, neither were we of the Arminian type. We were what we liked to say Biblicists. In the main, this generally could identify most Baptists, or at least it did in the past. But of course, along this broad continuum there have indeed been, and are, Reformed Baptists, Freewill Baptists, so on and so forth. In this post I want to focus on a variety of Reformed Baptists currently making waves in both the Reformed and Baptist worlds. This current iteration of Baptists has certain emerging spokespersons, namely people like: Matthew Barrett, Craig Carter, and others within this tribal ilk. It is as if these folk have just realized that Christianity has a history, and that part of that history entails the theological developments present in mediaeval and Post Reformed orthodox theology. It’s as if they just heard of Thomas Aquinas, and that upon this first hearing they have felt something like Luther’s lightning strike along the dark and dreary road of the normally rationalistic Baptisticism they have been coddled in, heretofore, all their live long days. As such, they seem intent on recovering Thomas Aquinas, and Thomist theology in general, in ways that even standing on the rooftops and shouting with glee isn’t enough to atone for their past oversight of the Angelic doctor’s theological speculations. And so they do podcasts, tweet tweets ad nauseum, produce podcasts, publish blog posts, and author books declaring the beauty and bounty they believe they have found in the sacrosanctity, the purist of orthodoxies, in the theology of Thomas Aquinas, and its various iterations within the broad category of the contrivances of Thomism. In their glee, in their newfound faith, so to speak, it’s as if for them the whole classical tradition (so-called) is one big smashed-potato that is of apiece. In this glee they press all of classical theology, whether it be Athanasius’ patristic theology, or Thomas Aquinas’ (Aristotelian) mediaeval theology, together in a way that the unbeknownst reader would think that the continuum of Christian thought just is one big consensus fidelium, one big consensus patrum, one big Great Tradition that Baptists, among all Christians, need to avail themselves of; particularly against the modern theology they have been ensnared by for so long.

But as those who have read here for any amount of time, we know that Thomism is not the same as Athanasianism, or more broadly, Nicene theology. I have detailed in hundreds of posts over the decades how classical theology isn’t without significant nuance, both at formal and material levels. And yet Barrett, Carter et al. simply want to lead people to believe that the classical tradition just is of an organic piece that consummates in something like Post Reformed orthodox theology (minus the Federal theology and Covenantal baptism therein). They are creating centers to promote this facile understanding of things; facile in the sense that their thesis simply does not work in regard to the lack of nuance they think the history of Christian ideas from.

The most troubling aspect of all of this is that ideas have consequences, no matter what their historical aperture. And yet these fellas gloss right past these things. They often do so by setting up their respective recovery of Thomas over against the “demonic theology” of the moderns (they include Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance in this frame). And yet those they are leading into the harrowed waters of the ostensibly deep drink of Thomist theology have seemingly never stopped to consider whether or not what they are being tapped with has any necessary correlation to God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ, as attested to in Holy Scripture. They are simply told (by people like Barrett and Carter) that in fact Thomas and his heritage in the Reformed expression just is biblically fragrant and correlative. These students are told that Thomas and his speculative theological tradition, particularly as that takes on Protestant dress, is the most proximate interpretive grammar for the biblical teaching that a Christian can live and think from. They are simply told that thinking God as actus purus (‘pure being’) just is the only way an orthodox Christian can think God; and then all the subsequent theologizing that follows as that implicates things like anthropology, soteriology, so on and so forth. And yet I’m here to tell these same people that this approach, this repristinational effort by folks like Barrett and Carter (et al.) is misguided (even if done from good intentions). Who we think God to be will determine everything else following; get God wrong, and you get everything else wrong.

I will be writing on this more, although I feel like I’ve already done that online since 2005, without ceasing. But we now have a new crop, new energy in this arena; they need a counter voice online: send me Lord! There are others who I didn’t name who are central to this movement. You’ll see their names in the tweets I’m sharing as infographics as Barrett has shared them on his Twitter account (which he blocked me from seeing). People like Carl Trueman, Michael Horton, David Sytsma, Adonis Vidu et al. My intention, as I call these things out, isn’t to troll, but to alert folks to the fact that there is a better way forward to be genuinely and historically evangelical. That there is a kerygmatic, an evangelical, a Christologically concentrated, a theistically personalist and thus truly trinitarian grammatical way to be a Christian that does not simply repose in the repristination of a so-called classical theological universe conditioned by Thomas Aquinas, and his mentor, Aristotle.

A Query with Reference to Dr Jordan Cooper and His Scholasticism

Why does Dr Jordan Cooper have the following he does? He continues to insist that Protestant orthodoxy (Lutheran or Reformed), which developed in the 16th and 17th C in Western Europe, represents the only real way to be a faithful *orthodox* Christian. As such he devotes much of his time proclaiming to the world that orthodoxy is the Godsend the Protestant Church of Jesus Christ needs. But what if said orthodoxy was only orthodoxy for merely a sector of even the 16th and 17th C Protestant churches? What if Cooper’s orthodoxy isn’t actually catholic in the sense that it is genuinely representative of an ecumenical and even conciliar way to think the triune God in Jesus Christ? What if said orthodoxy was regional and time-stamped, based on the intellectual capacities and resources available to the Church in that region then? This seems to be the case. Does Aristotelian metaphysics, which Cooper’s orthodoxy is based upon, actually and most meaningfully deal with what the Christian Church is faced with today in the 21st C? Is God capable, is He capacious enough to continue to speak through the categories the Church has been provided with in the modern period, even the postmodern? Why is God’s voice delimited by 16th and 17th C Europe; why is God unable to speak orthodoxly in the categories of today; is Aristotle the only means of grace for the world? Indeed, did God “only” speak through Aristotle even back then? Weren’t there other ecclesial and ideational developments therein that God spoke faithfully to His people through? Weren’t there other orthodoxies, even Reformed and Lutheran, in the 16th and 17th C afoot (there were!) I have no problem constructively engaging with the scholastics of Reformed and Lutheran orientation from back then. But I am a 21st C Christian, and I have an array of categories to think and proclaim God through that can be just as orthodox, and even more so IMO, than Aristotle was back then. Cooper’s thesis just does not follow in any meaningful sense, theologically. Deus dixit, ‘God has spoken,’ and continues to speak to His Church through the living and risen voice of Jesus Christ. He is not delimited by 16th and 17th C categories. The Protestant Church is the Church of the ‘Scripture Principle,’ the Church of a radical theology of the Word. God delimits history with His history for the world in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is purely ad hoc and presumptuous to presume that God only spoke in Protestantly orthodox ways in 16th and 17th C Western Europe, but this is what the Dr would have us to believe. Repristination of the type that Cooper is engaging in is really just an archeological dig in search of Christian artifacts that may have blessed some of our brothers and sisters back then, but God has continued to speak to His Church beyond that; and He does that as we meet Him afresh anew in the pages of Holy Scripture. Protestant orthodoxy of Cooper’s type represents a new Romish-like magisterium. But I’m Protestant!

Martin Luther Against Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the Post Reformed orthodox

Martin Luther, as I have referred to previously, was indeed anti-Aristotelian, particularly with reference to Aristotle’s anthropology as that effused throughout his Nicomachean Ethics. Indeed, Luther makes his disgust toward Aristotle’s Ethics, and thus, anthropology, very clear in his theological protestations, as he nailed those, just a month prior to his 95 theses, to the Wittenberg door. This was the real reason for Luther’s reformation, as my former professor and mentor, Dr Ron Frost, has so clearly argued. Luther saw Pelagian wickedness in Aristotle’s anthropology, and of course insofar as Aquinas appropriated Aristotle’s Ethics, among other things, this compelled Luther to post his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology contra the Papacy. When you read his DAST it is clear that Luther sees the anthropology forwarded by Aristotle as a corrosive agitant vis-à-vis an orthodox, and thus biblical understanding of salvation. Here is the aspect where Luther makes clear, in 1517, what he thinks about Aristotle’s impact upon the Papal doctrina:

  1. We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds. This in opposition to the philosophers.
  2. Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace. This is in opposition to the scholastics.
  3. It is an error to maintain that Aristotle’s statement concerning happiness does not contradict Catholic doctrine. This is in opposition to the doctrine on morals.
  4. It is an error to say that no man can become a theologian without Aristotle. This is in opposition to common opinion.
  5. Indeed, no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle.
  6. To state that a theologian who is not a logician is a monstrous heretic–this is a monstrous and heretical statement. This is in opposition to common opinion.
  7. In vain does one fashion a logic of faith, a substitution brought about without regard for limit and measure. This is in opposition to the new dialecticians.
  8. No syllogistic form is valid when applied to divine terms. This is in opposition to the Cardinal [Peter of Ailly].
  9. Nevertheless it does not for that reason follow that the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity contradicts syllogistic forms. This is in opposition to the same new dialecticians and to the Cardinal.
  10. If a syllogistic form of reasoning holds in divine matters, then a doctrine of the trinity is demonstrable and not the object of faith.
  11. Briefly, the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light. This is in opposition to the scholastics.
  12. It is very doubtful whether the Latins comprehended the correct meaning of Aristotle.
  13. It would have been better for the church if Porphyry with his universals had not been born for the use of theologians.
  14. Even the more useful definitions of Aristotle seem to beg the question.[1]

This poses a problem, especially to those desirous of retrieving Post Reformed orthodox theology for the renewal of the 21st evangelical and Protestant churches. David Sytsma has recently argued that the later Luther came to find Aristotle’s Ethics useful, at least in some way, but that even if he didn’t (which he didn’t, in the main) Luther is really of no consequence to the development of Protestant theology; that Luther’s impulses were not necessary for the flowering of a latterly developed Protestant orthodoxy. Indeed, Sytsma wants to recast the foundation for the development of Protestant orthodoxy at the feet of Luther’s codifier, Philip Melanchthon. Sytsma writes:

Despite Luther’s early polemic against Aristotle, he did not altogether reject the usefulness of the Nicomachean Ethics. Just as Melanchthon had joined Luther in his initial critique of Aristotle, there are indications that the influence went the other way as well. In his later years, after Melanchthon had reintroduced Aristotle’s ethics at Wittenberg, Luther expressed remarkable appreciation for Aristotle’s text. In 1543, Luther said that although philosophers such as Cicero and Aristotle do not teach “how I can be free from sins, death, and hell,” they nonetheless wrote excellently on ethics: “Cicero wrote and taught excellently about virtues, prudence, temperance, and the rest. Aristotle similarly also [wrote and taught] excellently and very learnedly about ethics. Indeed, the books of both are very useful and of the highest necessity for the conduct of this life.” (Luther 1930: 608) Luther also appropriated Aristotle’s concept of equity (epieikeia) from book V of the Nicomachean Ethics as a consistent part of his theology (Kim 2011: 91-98; Gehrke 2014; Arnold 1999). In his Lectures on Genesis wrote that “peace and love are the moderator and administrator of all virtues and laws, as Aristotle beautifully says about epieikeia in the fifth book of his Ethics” (Luther 1960: 340; Kim 2011: 94). Alongside his praise for Aristotle’s concept of epieikeia, Luther even affirmed Aristotle’s concept of virtue as a mean between extremes:

Aristotle deals with these matters in a very fine way when he writes about geometrical proportion and epieikeia…. The law must be kept, but in such a way that the government has in its hand a geometrical proportion, or a middle course and epieikeia. For virtue is a quality that revolves about a middle course, as a wise man will determine. (Luther 1966a: 174; Gehrke 2014: 90)

Such remarks indicate that while Luther initially objected to perceived theological abuse of Aristotle’s ethics, he came to accept its usefulness in certain respects (Gerrish 1962: 34-35). Whether or not this is the case, however, Luther’s own views are not definitive for the larger history of Protestantism, for his early anti-Aristotelian polemic was not taken too seriously by later ethicists at Protestant universities, who on this matter “looked for guidance from Melanchthon rather than Luther” (Svensson 2020: 189).[2]

It is interesting as we read Sytsma what becomes rather apparent is the type of hedging, he is engaging in throughout his treatment. The way we know he is hedging is the way he concludes: viz. that Luther’s thinking is ultimately of no consequence towards the later development of Protestant orthodoxy. I say he is hedging because you can sense a level of ‘spin’ in regard to the way Sytsma is attempting to present Luther vis-à-vis Aristotle. There is no doubt that Luther appreciated certain aspects of Aristotle’s ability to communicate with a level of technical precision and clarity that would make any communicator and teacher swoon. But there is scant evidence to suggest that Luther ever recanted of what he intentionally wrote contra Aristotle’s Ethics in his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology. For Luther the whole premise of his reformational work was bounded by his slavish commitment to what came to be his seminal and paradigmatic moment; his realization of sola fide, ‘Faith Alone!’ Aristotle’s anthropology was diametrically opposed to this reality, insofar that his notion that humanity had a capacity within itself to be virtuous through habituation in the virtues, ran counter to Luther’s commitment to the Bondage of the Will. When you read the whole of Luther’s DAST, this becomes the clear target of his protesting, and thus reformational identity. To attempt to soften this, in regard to Luther’s “later” stance towards Aristotle, is to play fast and loose with the historical Luther in context; Sytsma should know better. He does, in the end, know better, and knows he must admit that Luther’s reformational impulses run counter to the type of ‘Christian Aristotelianism’ (see Muller) that he is attempting to recover for a 21st century Protestant revival of orthodoxy.

Why does this historical matter, matter, though? It matters because the truth matters, for one thing. Beyond that, at a material theological level it matters because as Protestants we want to be committed to, indeed, a faith alone mode as our evangelical identity. Luther’s protest was contra a system of soteriology that saw grace as a substance presented through the liturgy of the Holy Roman Catholic See. He understood that the only Mediator between God and man, was the Man, Christ Jesus. As such, to attempt to sneak a concept of grace back into the Protestant theological matrix that is funded by an Aristotelian anthropology dead-set against this type of immediate mediation between God and humanity through Christ Jesus, is to undercut the whole premise of what it originally meant to Protestant. If Sytsma and the whole machine he works within desires to think grace and salvation in the terms provided for by Aristotle, then do what so many Presbyterians, and the like have done in recent years, and swim the river Tiber; but don’t pretend to call yourselves ‘Protestant’ simply because the Post Reformed orthodox almost immediately fell right back into the communal waters of the Papal font. So-called Post Reformed orthodoxy is an anachronism constructed in order to identify the development of Protestant Reformed (and even Lutheran) orthodoxy that took place in the 16th and 17th centuries. But according to the Protestant ‘Scripture Principle’ Protestants don’t operate with a magisterium of the sort that Sytsma et al. are attempting to set this period of Protestant doctrinal development up as. We don’t allow nostalgia of a Western European development, even if it is ostensibly “Protestant” to allow it to call us into siren soundings, and blind us to what is actually at stake in regard to Protestant, and more importantly, biblical doctrina. And yet I would contend this is exactly what Sytsma and his whole company have been drawn to.

Luther would be rolling in his grave if he knew what happened to the Protestant churches. But no matter, as Sytsma would say to Luther: “[your] views are not definitive for the larger history of Protestantism. . . .”

[1] William Roach, Martin Luther’s 1517 Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, accessed 04-26-2022.

[2] David S. Sytsma, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Protestantism, accessed 04-26-2022, 2-3.

Jesus as Demi-Urge in the classical Calvinist Schemata

What is it about the decretum absolutum (absolute decree i.e., predestination in determinist mode) that sinks the classical Calvinist understanding of a doctrine of God in a God-world relation? It’s that it operates from an instrumentalist understanding of the Son’s relationship to the Father; it ruptures the eternal bond between the Father to the Son by the Spirit as the Son incarnates and becomes human. Under such conditions the work of Jesus is no longer essential to the being of the Son (and thus the Father), as such He simply becomes so much a demi-urge carrying out the dictates of an ad hoc decree (also not essential to God’s eternally triune being); meeting the conditions of the covenant of works/grace (having been ordered by the pactum salutis); and thus, an organ of God, but not God in se.

When the classical Calvinist system is placed under Christological scrutiny, through the analogy of the incarnation, it fails, radically so. Its centraldogma of predestination, in a God-world relation, as noted, reduces to, at best, a Ebionite christology, wherein the Logos ensarkos (‘Word enfleshed’) is ripped from the womb of the Father, thrown asunder among the heathen humanity, becoming the denarii by which the Father purchases the ‘elect’ from the ravages of the fallen world. When the works of Jesus are separated from the person of Jesus (think the Patristic an/ -enhypostasis), and this is what happens under the decretal system of Federal theology, or Westminsterian Calvinism, the Son in Christ simply becomes an elevated human, an adopted appendage who has been given the status of purchasing power in the stock market of the Father’s economy.

People living under the weight of the classical Calvinist schemata need to really think, and research deeply in regard to these above charges. Attempt to see if what I am asserting (and somewhat arguing) be so. Think through the logic and implications of the incarnation; think from the ground and grammar of the triune life of God. If after scrutinizing thusly, and you still believe classical Calvinist theo-logic holds up under the pressure of a strict adherence to God’s Self-revelation/exegesis in Jesus Christ, I will pray for you. Let me know if you need prayer.

The Last Word on a Reformed Doctrine of Election and Reprobation

You go online in the Reformed space, and you get the same old trope on a doctrine of election and reprobation; you essentially get the L (imited Atonement) of the TULIP served up as the ‘hard teaching’ Gospel truth reality about the way God relates to part of humanity in a God-world relation. I am here to set the record straight once and for all! This is simply not how God has related to the world, and this based on the analogy of the incarnation. We aren’t groping around in the darkness for snipes, but as Christians, instead, we have been given God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ in the incarnation. This is a sui generis (non-analogous) event that itself stands behind all epistemic efforts, at a primordial level, to know God. In other words, to know God is to be reconciled to God; and to be reconciled to God comes unilaterally from God’s free decision of Grace to become human (Deus incarnandus) for us that we might know Him as He has first known us in the Son (the eternal Logos). That said, if knowledge of God is slavishly tagged to God’s becoming for us in Jesus Christ, then to think God, and thus all corollary doctrines, in abstraction from God’s Self-givenness for us is neither safe nor Christian. Based upon this pre-Dogmatic reality we have capacity to move into a discussion on election/reprobation.

Christian Election and Reprobation

If we are to think election/reprobation from within the Chalcedonian frame of the homoousion of God’s life as both fully Divine and fully human in the singular person of Jesus Christ, and we follow the Apostle Paul’s teaching that ‘He who knew no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him’ (mirifica commutatio ‘wonderful exchange’), then we will think of reprobation as the general human status, post-lapse, that the eternal Logos assumed (assumptio carnis) in the assumption of our ‘fallen-flesh.’ As such, to think the reprobate status from this concrete revealed status of humanity is to think all of humanity, the only type of humanity present in the incarnation, as reprobate. But the force and anhypostatic ground of the enhypostatic person of the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, was such that its grandiose power, of the resurrection type, its “election and electing” power as it were, could not be resisted by the reprobate humanity that the Christ assumed. In other words, whilst Christ became fallen humanity, in the assumption of our humanity, the total humanity, or the massa, as Christ put ‘death to death’ (cf. Rom 8.3) in His humanity for us (pro nobis), His elect humanity as the ‘Greater, the Second Adam’ was always already going to win the day. That is to say, the everythingness of God’s triune life as active in God incarnate (Deus incarnatus), as the ground of the person, Jesus Christ, has no rival in the nothingness of the fallen humanity that was assumed in the Son’s enfleshment for the world.

This is the implication of the incarnation when applied to a doctrine of election/reprobation. We necessarily think such locus from God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Instead of wandering around in the wilderness, as if in exile because of disobedience, we flourish under the fount of God’s Self-knowledge as we have been invited into that in the banqueting table of His Holy and Triune Life. Interesting, isn’t it? This is where a discussion like this, on a topic like this, takes us. Typically, when people enter this fray, whether academic or popular, what is almost immediately bypassed is a consideration of how a properly understood Dogmatic taxis, or order, is necessary to acknowledge prior to downstream material discussions on a soteriological doctrine like election/reprobation represents. In other words, people too quickly gloss past the formal considerations that end up, latterly, informing their material theological conclusions when in fact they are ostensibly “theologizing.” When this type of Ramist, or loci styled schemata is uncritically adopted, when the ‘work of God’ comes to be abstracted, and thus separated from the ‘person of God in Jesus Christ’ we can end up thinking something like a doctrine of election/reprobation as if a procrustean bed; we can imagine a theological system wherein Christology can be thought of in abstraction from soteriology, and vice versa. This is how so-called (as I’ve called it) classical Calvinism and Arminianism has arrived at its conclusions in regard to election/reprobation in a God-world relation.

Conclusion

The moral of the story is this: When election/reprobation is thought slavishly from God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ, when it is thought of in terms of God’s humanity in the Chalcedonian register, what we end up with is something that is in line with what the biblical categories operate from with reference to election/reprobation (as these categories themselves are intended to map onto the biblical categories of ‘those being saved’ ‘those being destroyed’ see I Cor 1.18). What we end up with is the idea that Jesus Christ is both the electing God and elected human, and that by His free choice to become human, by His free choice to take on our ‘poverty’ we come to have the capacity to participate, ontically, in the riches of His elect humanity status as that is actualized in His resurrection from the dead (cf. II Cor 8.9.

Whatever the consequences of adopting this approach to election/reprobation turns out to be, one thing the exegete can rest assured of is that they are thinking in terms of the ecumenical grammar, the ‘creedal grammar’ of the Church catholic. If this is important to the exegete, then wherever this type of ‘Christo-logic’ might lead, said exegete will repentantly follow. Insofar as Jesus thought that the canon of Holy Scripture referred to Him (cf. Jn 5.39), then it behooves the exegete to imagine that their respective repose in the Chalcedonian grammar, constructively received, will present them with solid footing, no matter where that proverbial climb of theological endeavor might lead them. Further, when following Jesus’ lead, as far as thinking the res or ‘reality’ of Holy Scripture, our relative ascription to this or that ‘party theological tribe’ will end up taking second, if not third and fourth seats. In other words, the ‘catholicism’ of Christ’s life requires that a person is willing to think outside (if that’s what ends up happening) of their pet theological demarcations. That is to say, once a person adopts the hermeneutic proposed by the creedal grammar of something like Chalcedon, however that might be constructively received, it is the adoption into this hermeneutical family that said person will be formed by for the rest of their days. If this leads them, in explicit terms, to abandon say something like their beloved classical Calvinism, then so be it. There is no creed but Christ.

 

The Depersonalization of God’s Grace by the Thomists Reformed and others

What they aren’t telling you is that when you receive Aristotelian Christianity, when you recover Thomist theology, particularly in the Protestant Reformed scholastic flavor, for our purposes, you’re getting a doctrine of grace, and thus God, that thinks grace as a quality, a substance. Grace is depersonalized in this frame, as such the person of Christ is ruptured from the work of Christ allowing for a ‘natural’ space to obtain within a God-world relation. This is the combine of ‘grace perfecting nature’ ‘revelation perfecting reason.’ This is what the scholastic Reformed are pushing onto the “unbeknowing” masses, particularly the younger crowd out there (millennial and younger). I see this all day and all night long on theological social media. Young guys (mostly) and gals eating the doctors’ stuff up on the retrieval of Post Reformed orthodox theology, it is “Thomist,” it is unabashedly Aristotelian by way of formal and material categorization; in other words, it isn’t inherently or even incidentally ‘biblical’ in its offering—it is intentionally philosophical and speculative instead, exactly in contraposition from revelational reality. In this frame, God is a monad, actus purus (pure being), an unmoved substance who relates to the world through an impersonal decretum absolutum (absolute decree) within a substance metaphysical frame. When God is separated from His work in a God-world relation, when grace is no longer inherently God for the world in Christ, but a created quality, a created grace detached from God and located in the humanity’s ‘accidental’ life, whereby their ‘partially fallen’ bodies are ‘enabled’ to cooperate with God through this created grace, through this new habitus (disposition) ‘to be able’ to be for God, this does horrific things to a Christology (which I’ve written of elsewhere). Here is what Helmut Thielicke has to say on these matters:

We would turn now to the process of depersonalization which is initiated the moment grace is ontically separated from God, in order to set it forth with utter precision n the following propositions. In the first place, the grace of God in the Roman Catholic view is impersonal, not merely because as an effectus it has certain autonomy in respect of its author, and not only because as the bearer of a human or material habitus it can become the attribute of an entity which is not God, but primarily because in the theological system as a whole—we are thinking here of Thomas [Aquinas]—it is conceived as being in a measure present even “prior” to God. For the system of nature and supernature derives ultimately from the fact that Aristotelian ontology has taken over. Its antithesis between form and matter (εἶδος and ὕλη) precedes all Christian content. Indeed it provides the framework into which the Christian content is fitted. One might even say, it is discovered to be the most suitable container for that Christian content.

Only thus can we explain how it is possible to enunciate a doctrine of nature and supernature in the form of an ontological construction almost without making any reference to the fall. For it nature and supernature are already there as given factors, the fall can at most be only a disruption in the “inner workings” of this system. It can involve only a “dislocation,” a dislocation in the form of subtraction comparable to the dislocation in the form of addition which we noted in connection with redemption. With these given factors presupposed, theological thinking can never be constitutively determined by “events,” by the contingent historicity of the fall and of redemption in Jesus Christ. It can never be determined by events which, by virtue of their contingency, must always transcend any system we may devise for trying to grasp them. If the system itself is to some extent already given, then the events must be fitted into it. They can only be, as it were, illustrations of an ontic order, and of a history of the world, of salvation, and of judgment which is constituted by this ontic order, a history which may thus in its basic tendencies be understood a priori, in the manner in which the “pagan” Aristotle understood it.

Personalistic thinking rests on contingency. For it relates to personal “events,” eg, to man’s decision at the fall, or to God’s decision to give his only Son (John 3:16). Resolves of this kind are matters of the will. They cannot be postulated. They can be known only a posteriori. They can only be attested. Ontological thinking, on the contrary, rests on regularity, a regularity which is supposed to include personal events. This regularity, e.g., the mutual flowing together of pure form and matter which underlies Aristotelian ontology, is understandable a priori. This is why there has to be, and in fact is, a proof of God in Roman Catholic theology. A clear example of this ability to postulate is the typical ontological attempt of Anselm to answer with logical stringency the question: Cur Deus homo?1

I have been banging this same drum, the material engaged with in this post through Thielicke, since I started theoblogging in 2005. It has NEVER been engaged with in the literature, by those who have interacted with our books, or online in the theoblogosphere, or elsewhere. The only response, beyond crickets, that I have received is by way of assertion: i.e. “Post Reformed orthodoxy IS NOT based in an impersonal substance metaphysics.” The problem is that it is, and demonstrably so as Thielicke, Barth, Torrance[s], Ron Frost, myself and others have now shown over and over again! But we are up against a theological Deus ex machina known as Post Reformed orthodoxy. Its proponents keep reassuring its would-be elect that it represents the orthodox and genuine iteration of catholic Christianity; that it isn’t a variant, or even a duplication of Roman Catholic theology, that it is in fact the “golden chaine” of post-Nicene theological development.

But if God isn’t personally grace for us in Jesus Christ, and for the Thomists He is not, then there is ultimately no hope! Under this framework wherein grace is ruptured from God, Jesus enters the world under the conditions of a decree framed by a doctrine of grace that is definitionally disconnected from the giver of grace; as such, in the incarnation the Logos ensarkos the Son of God becomes a predicate of creation, and insofar that Chalcedonian Christology affirms the inseparably between God and humanity (without admixture) in the singular person of Jesus Christ, insofar as the an/ -enhypostasis is the case in regard to the personhood of Jesus, God becomes a predicate of His own creation in the incarnation. The decretum absolutum makes God’s life contingent upon His own creation even whilst it is attempting to keep Him ‘Simple’ and untouched by His creation; this is quite the conundrum!

 

1 Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics: Foundations (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 242-43.

Luther’s Personalist Grace Contra Scholastic (Catholic and Protestant) Created Grace

Martin Luther’s doctrine of grace was of a personalist sort, contra the Thomist Catholic concept of grace as a ‘created grace’ or habitus (a disposition given by God to elect humanity in their “accidents” whereby they might habituate [cooperate] with God by way of gratia infusa [infused grace, which is created and thus derivative grace] and merit the possibility to ultimately be justified before God wherein the iustitia Christi finally consummates as the iustitia Dei [‘righteousness of Christ’ … ‘righteousness of God’]). This is significant to underscore, not just because it offers an alternative, “biblical,” account of grace, contra Roman Catholicism, but this implicates Reformed orthodoxy insofar that it received, and repristinated this doctrine of Grace, the Thomist doctrine, in the development and codification of its so-called “orthodox” Reformed theology. Here is Luther with some commentary by Helmut Thielicke:

‘I take grace in the proper sense,’ writes Luther in his treatise Against Latomus (1521), ‘as the favor of God—not a quality of the soul, as is taught by our more recent writers. This grace truly produces peace of heart until finally a man is healed from his corruption and feels he has a gracious God.’ LW 32, 227. In his 1519 commentary on Psalm 1:2 Luther says: ‘Here “delight” [in the Law of the Lord] stands, first of all, neither for ability [potentia] nor for the indolent habit [habitus] which was introduced from Aristotle by the new theologians in order to subvert the understanding of the Scriptures, nor for the action [actus] out of which, as they say, that ability or habit proceeds. All human nature does not have this delight, but it must necessarily come from heaven. For human nature is intent and inclined to evil, . . . The Law of the Lord is truly good, holy, and just. Then it follows that the desire of man is the opposite of the Law.” LW 14, 295.1

Thielicke develops Luther’s critique with greater depth, but for our purposes this quote will have to suffice. What should be understood though, as I highlighted previously, is that for the scholastics (Catholic or the Reformed orthodox latterly), what was most important was to recognize that ontologically nature retained its esse (essence), even post-fall; in other words, the intellect remained intact, retained a “point of contact” with God even after its rupture from God in the fall. In this frame, then, grace was only needed as an addition to the ‘accidents’ (not the essence) of humanity whereby the elect person might synergistically cooperate and perform ‘their’ salvation with God (in the Catholic frame this took place sacramentally through the Church; for the orthodox Reformed this was understood through Federal or Covenantal theology as that developed progressively along the way). But significantly, grace for the Aristotelian (as that was appropriated in various iterations of “Thomism”), was not, and would not be God himself, personally. The need, in the scholastic frame was not that desperate; that is, that God himself be grace for us (pro nobis). For the scholastic, as already noted, the fall did not plunge humanity into a rupture with God wherein the whole of what it means to be human was lost, just part, essentialistically, was lost. And it was ‘this part’ that a created grace, as a ‘medicine’ would make perfect (e.g. ‘grace perfects nature’). As the reader can see, though, Luther opposed this type of Aristotelian rambunctiousness.

For Luther, and others, even in the 16th and 17th century Reformed ambit, grace was in fact God for and with us. We of course see this theme picked up by people like Barth and TF Torrance in their contexts and under their own respective ideational periods of reference. Insofar that the Post Reformed orthodox have imbibed, retrieved, appropriated, repristinated the Thomist mantle, and they are doing that currently with exuberance, this is the doctrine of grace they are ingesting. There is a better way forward, and this is why I am so intent on introducing people to Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. They are retrievers of the ‘Chalcedonian pattern,’ and the Athanasian frame wherein grace is indeed God for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. As such, salvation obtains for us, ‘in Christ,’ fully, and not through a synergistic frame of cooperating (or persevering) with God by way of ‘created grace’ wherein nature is perfected and not re-created through apocalyptic resurrection, ascension, and the Parousia.

There is a better way for the genuinely evangelical (historically understood) Christian, and it certainly isn’t by retrieving, whole hog, Post Reformed orthodoxy, or the type of mediaeval classical theism so many are attempting to “revive” the Protestant church with today. The biblical faith is intentionally trinitarian, relational, and thus personalistic. The ‘ground and grammar’ of any truly evangelical theology must be pollinated by biblical and revelational categories rather than philosophical and speculative ones (of the sort that we get through Aristotelian Christianity). Luther knew this, this was the basis of his reforming work. He understood God’s grace in personal, relational ways, and thus genuinely evangelical ways rather than in the philosophical categories that the schoolmen did.

 

1 Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics: Foundations (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 225 n. 3.

 

When the orthodox Protestant Theologians Become Recovering Catholics

At the end of the day all theological discourse must reduce to some reality. If the reality isn’t ultimately Jesus Christ, and the triune God He mediates, then you, by definition do not have a genuinely Christian theology. People can spend all their days, all their energies recovering natural law, natural theology so on and so forth, merely because they think this provides for the orthodox way of Protestant theology that history has to offer. Ultimately, though, Christian theology isn’t judged by a historicism like this, for that is what this mode is operating from. Christian theology, instead, is judged by its canon provided for by a person, by the Son of Man, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. He is God’s history for the world. Insofar that theologians attempt to think God from alternative ad hoc histories, of the sort conceived from a ‘pure nature,’ they are no longer operating from within the strictures of God’s primordial and thus delimiting (to His) life for the world in Jesus Christ. Such theologians are merely operating out of the fancies of their collective intellectual wits. It might satisfy their sense of identity within a self-perceived history, and the community attached to that, but it certainly does not achieve peace with God, in the sense that it has corollary with God’s freedom to be for the world in the way He has freely chosen to do that, to be that, in Jesus Christ. TF Torrance summarizes what I’m after well as he synopsizes the spirit of Barth’s theology:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.1

Currently, there is an orgy of so-called Protestant theologians frothing at the idea and practice of recovering Post Reformed orthodox theology. This is a theology funded by a commitment to the Aristotelian, Thomist faith of Catholicism; one that is funded by a pure nature, and the idea that abstract creation just is correlate with God’s economy to be for the world apart from Christ (thus the abstraction). These theologians are more concerned with retrieving an abstract orthodoxy than they are with constructively engaging with the reality of Holy Scripture—to be clear, the reality res of Holy Scripture, according to Jesus (cf Jn 5.39), is in fact, Jesus Christ. For these Protestant theologians, who are supposedly committed to the Protestant ‘Scripture principle,’ you’d think that the magisterium of the Holy Catholic Church was in fact the standard for orthodoxy rather than the reality of Holy Scripture. It is rather disastrous to watch this all unfold.

 

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

The Contemporary Reformed Are Recovering Catholic Modes of Thinking and Thus Spirituality: The Genuine Protestant Way Against Analogia Entis

If you’re a Catholic or scholastic Protestant thinker, you’ll follow along with Erich Przywara’s dictum (following Thomas’) of ‘revelation perfecting revelation.’ You’ll see a continuity between the naked philosopher’s machinations, and what comes in perfection through God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. You’ll maintain that humanity, since it is born into an iteration of God’s grace (which is an abstract creation), has the capacity, albeit, finite, to think towards the God of creation. On the other hand, if you’re a genuinely Protestant thinker who takes the noetic effects of the fall, who takes total depravity seriously, and who does not sublate such teaching with a Thomist intellectualist anthropology, you’ll be like Karl Barth and repudiate something like Przywara’s analogia entis. 

In other words, Barth sees the same ‘prefix’ that condemned in ‘The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life’ operative within Przywara’s Analogia Entis. Przywara posits that insights gained apart from God’s revelation of Jesus Christ stand in continuity with those acquired in and through this revelation because the ‘nature’ that philosophers are examining is, in fact, within the realm of grace simply as a result of God’s act of creation. Here lies the problem. Barth believes that this account overlooks the effects of the human sin. In his view, God’s act in creation cannot lead to true knowledge of God because creation is fallen. If nature stands in continuity with grace, therefore, it can do so solely because of the justifying work of Jesus Christ. This means that any relationship with God, or any true knowledge of God, stems solely from the knowledge of our justification. This is where we must start. Knowledge obtained from sources other than this starting point in Jesus Christ — such as the knowledge gained by the philosophers — does not stand in continuity with the knowledge of God given in and through Christ. The revelation of Jesus Christ, rather, comes from the outside as something new and distinct, and it stands in judgement over all other sources for the knowledge of God.1 

We currently have a bunch of scholastic Reformed theologians telling their students, and anyone who will listen, to recover Thomas Aquinas’ way of ‘grace perfecting nature.’ And yet this is at precise crosspurposes with Luther’s reformational move of solafidian. Barth understands the original intention and implications of Luther’s reformation, the scholastics Reformed remain clueless here. If you claim to be a committed Protestant who affirms an actual fall, with all of its ontological and noetic implications, then you ought to repudiate the natural theology of the Catholics, and scholastics Reformed. The scholastics Reformed only re-appropriated the Catholic mode of theological epistemology, and its prior doctrine of creation; they do not operate as genuine Protestant thinkers. Just because that’s ‘part’ of the Reformed heritage, ie the scholastics Reformed, does not make it the orthodox Protestantism that ought to be redivivus; but that is the driving supposition behind this particular recovery movement.

 

1 Keith L. Johnson, Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis (New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 149.