Retooling Divine Immutability Through Theological Actualism: Being-in-Becoming as the New ‘Metaphysic’

Divine Immutability is one of the hallmarks attendant with classical theism’s theology proper (i.e. doctrine of God). If someone denies this hallmark, according to the orthodoxy of classical theism, that person is not to be considered orthodox; instead, heterodox, or even a heretic. There are many classical theists, particularly in the classically Reformed quadrants who see Karl Barth as an outright heretic; typically for an array of uninformed reasons, based upon the received caricatures (in that tribe) of his theology. Be that as it may, when it comes to immutability in Barth’s theology, what we get is not its rejection, but instead, its reification and reformulation (which is true of Barth’s overall project in regard to the retooling of the traditional categories). For Barth, his ‘retooling’ project is a function of his adoption (and development) of an ‘actualist’ theological ontology; it is through this ontology that the orthodox loci become subject to an amplification vis-à-vis their circumscription by God in Christ (through Barth’s basic—to his theologizing—doctrine of election).

In the following we will see how Barth’s actualism retains the classical doctrine of immutability, but within a genuinely Christ-event[uating] frame; as that is narrated for us in the Apostolic Deposit left for us in the New Testament (as that is given prolepsis in the Old Testament). Sumner writes, at some length:

To relativize notions of becoming according to the nature of divine eternity is not inconsistent with the medieval doctors. Where Barth is most original is in his rejection of a metaphysic of being that precedes act, and in its place his desire to form theological judgments according to the gospel as an event. As we see in Chapter 3, this actualist approach includes a rejection of any distinction between God’s being and act, or His essence and existence, so that God is His activity—He is “the living God.” A description of this activity inevitably implicates God’s covenant relation to creatures, so that “God is” means “God loves”: God has caused His being to correspond to the covenant. Insofar as it relates to time and change, this ontology is patterned by the dialectic of an eternal promise (to become incarnate in Christ) and its historical fulfillment (the birth of God’s Son in Bethlehem).

A consequence of this ontology is that the issue of divine immutability is placed into a very different light. On the one hand, the being of God is neither prior to nor distinct from God’s act (logically or ontologically); and on the other, God’s protological decision in election is the more determinative of the dialectical poles. Historicization is the accomplishing of a reality that, for God, is already the case. Bruce McCormack is therefore right to argue that the Son is eternally human in the mode of anticipation (Logos incarnandus), and in time in the mode of historical actualization (Logos incarnatus). The solution to the dilemma of immutability is therefore evident: the Son does not change in the incarnation because His assumption of human essence is an eternal act. He has, in a sense, always been human.

One obvious objection must be immediately met. The suggestion that Jesus Christ is eternally human appears to collapse time into eternity and negate the historicity of the incarnation, robbing the virgin birth in the stable of Bethlehem of its import as the moment of becoming. Jesus effectively brings his humanity with him from heaven, according to this objection, and that Annunciation and Christmas stories are a sort of narrative falsehood—not the Word’s birth as a human but only His transmigration from the heavenly realm to Judea. The way in which Barth has related the incarnation to eternity, however, should make it clear that it is not the case that Jesus brings his humanity with him. As the Son of God he is eternally human only in the sense that: (1) he is present to all temporal moments at once; and (2) he is the Logos incarnandus, the Word who is to become flesh in time, and therefore human strictly in his readiness for God’s eternal covenant designs to be fulfilled among creatures. He no more brings his humanity with him than God hands down to Israel its entirely completed and fulfilled covenant and asks nothing further of them. The point of the actualist account is not that Christ’s humanity is uncreated (it is not) but that the divine person who is Jesus Christ is uncreated—that is, the anti-Arian doctrine of Christ’s preexistence. He would bring his humanity with him from heaven only if it were actualized in eternity, and not in time at all. But creation is the proper sphere of its actualization, the sphere of God’s redemptive work in fulfillment of the covenant, and the place where the Son of God is born (though not begotten).

Such is the argument for divine immutability that is suggested by Barth’s actualism—and, if we were to accept his revised ontology, this much might leave us satisfied. It is a clever solution to an ancient theological problem. But if we were to stop here we would not be doing full justice to Barth. Much of this argument, as I have said, is simply implied by Barth’s work. What he says more explicitly, however, indicates that we have not yet gone far enough. . . .[1]

As we leave off with Darren, we can see that he has more to say in regard to Barth’s fuller treatment in this area. But suffice it for our purposes to leave off where we do, as Barth’s reification of immutability through his actualist theological ontology is given definition.

It is this theological ontology that has transformed things for me, personally. Some want to label Barth’s actualist ‘being-in-becoming’ ontology as existentialism; but it’s not. Instead, Barth’s theological ontology is in fact: dialectical. Barth doesn’t absolutize existence as a prius to essence, instead he thinks these two realities together (but not without distinction) through the novum of the hypostatic union in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. This is what it means to think God as event; to think God from His Self-revelation in the humanity of the Son made flesh, while at the same time understanding this Revelation as genuinely revealing the reality that God has always already chosen to be for us, from Himself.

Divine immutability is retained in this ‘Barthian’ frame just as humanity is not foreign to God’s being, but one that He has freely chosen for Himself in the Son’s election. The distinction between Deus incarnandus and Deus incarnatus helps to recognize how this Subject-in-distinction dialectically identifies how it is that God can be ‘unchanging’ while at the same time becoming, as the eternal reality of God’s anticipation to become human, actually, eventuates historically in the incarnation. We can see how this maintains the Creator/creature distinction, while at the same time providing for a continuity between God’s being and becoming in the enfleshment; insofar as the being is not in itself contingent upon the becoming (i.e. temporality)—in fact it is just the inverse: the becoming is the being in ‘downward’ motion, consistent with who God eternally is in the humiliation of the Son vis-à-vis the Father.

I wonder if this has clarified anything for you (reader) … do tell.


[1] Darren O. Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (New York/London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), Loc. 5261, 5269, 5277, 5284, 5292 Kindle edition.


Being a Conciliar Protestant Christian in the 21st Century: Referring to Barth as a Case Study

Being creedally orthodox is a badge of honor these days, and in days past, for what it means to be a sound Christian thinker and disciple of Jesus Christ. This becomes all that more acute when we start thinking about creedal orthodoxy within the confines of Protestantism; particularly in relation to Protestantism’s lack-luster exuberance for recognizing the role of tradition in the interpretive process of Holy Scripture. I just came across a quote cited by my friend Steven Nemes on another social media platform; a passage that helps illustrate what I am referring to:

The Reformers did not intend to sever themselves entirely from the Christian past. Calvin’s writings in particular contain numerous references to the church fathers, and he clearly attempts to align the program of the Reformation with Augustine. The significance of Calvin in this regard is noted by Jaroslav Pelikan, who states that the Geneva Reformer became the one figure who ‘more than any other, enabled the leaders of the Reformation to claim that they were not throwing over the Christian past after all.’ Yet in spite of attempts by some of the Reformers to maintain a place, albeit a limited one, for the tradition of the church, the trajectory of Protestantism coupled with its ongoing polemic against the Catholic Church inevitably served to diminish, if not eclipse, the significance of tradition for Protestant theology.[1]

While in many sectors in the evangelical and, in particular, the Reformed churches there is a revival, particularly among her theologians, of theology of retrieval. As the early portion of the above passage notes, the intention of what became known as sola scriptura was not to elide reference to the catholic Christian faith of the ecumenical creeds and grammar; instead the move had more to do with undercutting the magisteria of the papacy of Rome, and in-placing that instead with the authority of Holy Scripture.

It is within this ‘Protestant’ spirit that someone like Karl Barth approached the orthodoxy presented in the conciliar faith of the ecumenical councils; really in the spirit of what we find in someone like John Calvin, as mentioned previously. In light of this, I thought it would be helpful to read along with some of Darren Sumner’s treatment of Barth’s relationship to conciliar Christianity, and how he (Barth) understood the role of councils; particularly as that has to do, materially, with the grammar it has presented the churches with for the last many centuries. We pick up with Darren as he is discussing the various periodic circumstances and occasions that gave rise to the need for the so called ecumenical councils to convene in the first place. It is in this context that Sumner places Barth’s own sense of need to translate from that period to his, while (as the thesis goes) retaining not just the spirit, but often the very letter of the councils’ permutations as those, in particular, had to do with theology proper and Christology.

Darren writes:

As a response to particular situations the creeds of Nicaea, Chalcedon, and others have a particular prehistory, and their promulgation is the form of the church’s decision regarding that which made the confession necessary (and not a free and unconditioned doctrinal reflection, a “truncated summa theologiae”).

That a confession retains these limits, of course, does not by any means suggest that its real truth, and its authority in the church, are marginal. Barth simply means to make clear just what sort of thing a confession is, so that we who owe so much to the Fathers do not mistake it as something else. In fact, it is upon its very limitation that the authority of the confession decisively rests: this admits it humanity, and therefore shifts the burden of truth and authority off of the human speech of the church and onto the Lord of the church who guides it. That a confession is conditioned by its immediate context only goes to show that the authority it continues to bear for Christian witness is an authority not its own.

The result of all this is Barth’s conviction that, in each new generation, the dogmas of the church not only can be subject to scrutiny and revision but must be so—because “in every century the Church has had to find out anew the meaning of Scripture.”

The task remains. We must trust that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. We have no pope in Protestantism, but we do have secondary criteria. Sound exegesis will be done within the communion of the saints. The Bible is given to the community of the Church. Tradition helps us toward sound exegesis, and tradition includes the whole history of the Church (including the nineteenth century!). Confessions also help, but none of these is an absolute criterion. In interpretation, tradition and Church Fathers and confessions are our “parents” whom we must respect and honour, but there are times when a breach must be made (Reformation!). [Karl Barth’s Table Talk, p. 97]

Confession and dogma rest upon Scripture and so continually point the church back to it. But “the confession cannot and will not deprive us of our own responsibility to Scripture”—to hearing, understanding, and applying it. And since theology is a human work, the confession of the church and of the theologian is a task left unfinished until its own eschatological consummation—which itself is, Barth says, not in the church’s dogma but its praise offered to God. The authority of the confession “is thus an eschatological concept, to which no present actualisation corresponds, to which every reality of Church confession, everything we now know as dogma old or new, can only approximate.[2]

I have pressed this point before, about the eschatological character of the confessions, and thus their relative and organic force, but I thought Darren’s articulation was prescient and worthwhile for our consideration.

In the best of Protestantism, we read our Bible’s as Steven Holmes has said by, Listening to the Past. In this spirit Barth is just like so many other of the best thinkers that the Protestant church has to offer; if not, in my biased opinion, the best of the best. Hopefully though, while recognizing Barth’s commitment to indeed, ‘listen to the past,’ we can also see how not only to approach the tradition, but the way we should place the tradition; particularly as that is given catholic form in the conciliar Christianity of the paleo-past. Instead of imbuing the creeds with Divine sanction, like in a causal sense, Barth rightly sees them as the wrestlings of our brothers and sisters of the departed past; to boot, faced with a variety of unique circumstances, that to lesser or greater degrees have global ingredients that make them valuable for all times till Kingdom come. But it is precisely because of their human character that Barth, according to Sumner, rightly recognizes the lassitude conciliar Christianity presents itself to us with. In other words, because Christianity is a reality that gains reality from beyond itself in its eschatological ground in the Triune Life as revealed and given as gift in Christ, we are always in via. As such, there is lassitude within this via towards greater precision and erudition in regard to the burgeoning knowledge of God the church is growing into as she is being ostensibly transformed from glory to glory. This, I think, is what Barth’s relationship to conciliar Christianity entails.

What Barth offers Protestants, particularly those who are grateful for their conciliar trajectory, is a way to engage with the grammar of the councils while not also being slavishly determined by them when there might be a greater (not lesser) way to press out some of the inchoate ideas pregnant within the womb of the creeds. But it is in just this regard that I would suggest, that Barth offers a way towards being a Protestant, committed to sola scriptura that is also able to partake of the great tradition of the church. Of course it is Barth’s resistance to natural theology that won’t allow him to simply be chained to an ecclesiological discourse that seemingly just is of God’s direction. He would rather allow the Lord of the church to have room to still speak as Lord of the church; particularly as the church needs to be contravened by God’s voice rather than her own.


[1] Franke, Evangelicals & Scripture, 198 cited by Steven Nemes, accessed 01-19-2019, Facebook feed.

[2] Darren O. Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (New York/London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), Loc. 4115, 4123, 4131, 4140 Kindle edition.

Karl Barth, The Reformed Theologian Par Excellence: Christ Rather than the Confessions as the Canon

This might seem rather pedantic, like at the level of: who cares? But, apparently I do. Others do too, but only those ensconced in the confessional of so called Protestant Reformed orthodoxy; theological identity is important in these sectors. For me it’s mostly important as a matter of fact, rather than proving an identity [for Barth] that in itself does nothing, one way or the other, with reference to his constructive theological offering for the Christian churches. Maybe you are tracking already with what I am referring to. Barth is denied entrée into the genuinely Reformed branches of the Protestant churches, pretty much because those in those churches believe he is still too liberal and modern; that he doesn’t submit, in slavish ways, to the confessional traditions in the purist ways they ostensibly do.

But Barth was a Reformed theologian. He might not fit in with the ad hoc standards the “standardizers” have set, but that’s no matter; that’s ad hoc. As is typical though with Barth his approach to all things, at a formal level even, is always Christ concentrated. Of course when we read Barth, as with any theologian, we must be attentive to their point of maturation. The early Barth, or we might say the Göttingen Barth, was clearly a Reformed theologian; just at the point that demarcated Lutherans from the Reformed, even in the magisterial days—the days saturated with the Eucharistic debates about Christ’s presence. This debate, surely, stemmed from a broader discussion and implication grounded in the Christological quarrels that we can trace into the patristic period.

At the very minimal we can say that the early Barth was a Reformed theologian. But I would contend that he remains largely Reformed throughout his career as a theologian; even after he reforms the classical understanding of election in Church Dogmatics II. Here Darren Sumner notes Barth’s self-conscious Reformed location, contra the Lutherans, as he works out his dogmatics in Göttingen:

Finally, it should be noted that here Barth is self-consciously Reformed. The lectures are given as a contrast to Lutheran Christology—which Barth regards as an innovation (particularly with respect to the communicatio idiomatum) doomed to fail just as Eutychian monophysitism failed. There seems to be no possibility of harmony between these two Reformation schools on the matter of Christology. Both lay claim to parts of the Chalcedonian Definition. One must decide between the two, and Barth acknowledges that the place from which he speaks is Reformed and not Lutheran: “One cannot be both, as far as I can see and understand.” But at least, Barth adds, the decision on the Reformed side has never been understood as exclusive: “Not No, but Yes!” The sense of this is that Barth believes that the Reformed may not have it all right in their Christology, but they did well in maintaining an attitude of theological openness while opposing the errors of their opponents. Theirs is a corrective, but not a replacement of one theological system with another, in a definite and exclusionary sense.[1]

I think this represents a better way towards identifying theological identity. In other words, why refer to the Reformed confessions as the standard for membership in the Reformed faith. Even among those who ostensibly adhere to them as their canons, even they have severe lassitude and disagreement on points of emphasis and articulation. Historically, I think referring to actual theological material as the theological identifier of someone is the better way. The Christological impasse represents an excellent standard for this, in and amongst the ancient and even contemporary Protestants.

Barth self-consciously falls on the Reformed side, particularly given his christological commitments. Even as he became more constructive, moving beyond Göttingen, he still retains his Reformed emphases. Just read his CD, in particular his footnotes and you’ll see his heavy engagement with the scholastics Reformed throughout.

At the end of the day, what Barth offered was a theological oeuvre that is fruitful and edifying because he attempted a theological endeavor that intentionally and obsessively worked from Jesus Christ. Whether or not this meets the standards of what counts as Reformed theology in the 21st century doesn’t ultimately matter. The eschaton will reveal what matters; the eschaton will be the time that shows that Barth’s attempt was the better way, just because he slaved himself to the Christ as the reality and centrum of all theological output for the churches. Even so, Barth was Reformed!

[1] Darren O. Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), Loc. 1965, 1973.

Barth’s ‘Actualism’, The Fund that Allows His Theology to be Genuinely Protestant versus [c]atholic: The Scripture Principle

The following represents the sort of “metaphysic” I follow, in regard to a God-world relation. It flows from Barth’s style of actualism, and as you will see, it coheres with his stance contra natural theology. If there is anything, beyond election (and these things are related), that has attracted me most to Barth’s theology, it is this actualist alternative to the theological ontology that funds the various classical theisms. In order to understand what I am referring to, if you don’t, we will read along with Darren Sumner, as he describes Barth’s actualism. The following comes from Darren’s published PhD dissertation entitled Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God.

Barth’s methodology thus follows from his doctrine of revelation: there is no creaturely basis for theological speech, which is only speech after God, who summons creatures to an act of repetition in witnessing to His Word. This task thus  begins not with philosophical presuppositions, nor with the creature’s speculation or erection of descriptive categories by which revelation might be understood, but with the event of God’s activity in history—an activity to which Scripture is witness and that has its telos the very presence of God in Jesus Christ. While this may seem self-evident to Christian theologians, Barth’s theology demonstrates the real and radical consequences of strictly adhering to such a method—and thus exposes the tradition’s occasional failures to engage in its task from this starting point and no other.

But because revelation is the utterance of a Word that is God Himself, this epistemology has further ontological implications. Barth’s actualistic ontology describes not only revelation but also the being of God in His activity, over against that which is regarded as a speculative essentialism—that is, a God who exists logically prior to and apart from His works. God is therefore not one who acts, but is His activity. God exists in motion, a motion that springs from the abundance of God’s love and is directed toward creatures. God’s being is pure act—a classically Augustinian way of speaking of divine simplicity and aseity, but which Barth insists is to be anchored in that one event in which God has actually made Himself known to creatures. “God is” means “God loves,” and all further insights about who God is must revolve around this mystery of His loving. Such an ontology suggests that God is the Lord even of His own existence, because God sovereignly wills the activity by which He determines His being. (Thus Barth located election within his doctrine of God, not in creation or reconciliation.) God’s self-determination to be God for creatures—the God of the covenant (Lev. 26.12–13)—has the incarnation of the Son as its fulfillment.

Actualism therefore identifies both Barth’s methodology and divine ontology because revelation and reconciliation are interdependent. Revelation is reconciliation, and vice versa. Revelation is, further, God’s own self-disclosure, which is to say that in Christ God has communicated His own divine life and not merely information about Himself. As Wolfhart Pannenberg put the matter: “The Revealer and what is revealed are identical. God is as much the subject, the author of his self-revelation, as he is its content.” Therefore the Christ event, the divine-human life of Jesus, “belongs to the essence of God himself.” The theological speech of men and women, therefore, must remain continuously attentive to the history of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the covenant. Each aspect—God’s self-giving to creatures in revelation and reconciliation, and God’s own, inner life—is in the dynamic movement of act and giving, never in fixed form.[1]

This articulation from Darren helps to reinforce what I have been presenting here at the blog for many years. This is why it is rather hard to bring Barth’s theology, and the classical theistic theology being retrieved by so many up-and-coming theologians in the evangelical churches into relief. There is a distinct theological ontology—an ontology that is explicitly shaped by dynamic relational characteristics versus those offered up by the ‘substance’ metaphysics imbibed by reference to classical Greek philosophers—that left unrecognized will stymie any sort of fruitful rapprochement, or at least some semblance of dialogue between the theologians.

More applicably: For me personally, Barth’s actualism works much better with the God we come up against in encounter with Him in Holy Scripture. The God we encounter, in Christ, is indeed, the only face of God that the Christian actually knows. We don’t know a prior God to the God that we have met in Jesus Christ. The Christian’s concept of God, particularly the Protestant’s, is grounded in the reality we meet narrated to us through the pages of Scripture. This is why we can say that Barth’s theology is genuinely Protestant in orientation; while he is working constructively with the tradition, and the so called Chalceonian settlement, his primary norm is what is taught in Scripture. But in order to genuinely value this, the Protestant must indeed be committed to semper reformanda in the sense that the organicism of Scripture’s reality (res) gets to shape the categories and emphases through which God is known. All too often, precisely because many Protestants want to cull the ‘catholic’ heritage, what is abandoned, in function, is this sort of principial commitment to Scripture as the norming norm. These sorts of Protestants end up truncating Scripture by reference to the ecumenical creeds, thus disallowing Scripture (signum) and its reality (res) to provide primary shape for how the Christian thinks God.

Much more could be said, but actualism, and Barth’s style of it as applied to a doctrine of God in Christ, undercuts the sort of theological essentialism that defines the various classical theistic traditions and retrievals currently underway. It undercuts precisely at the point that he is attempting to understand who God is by encountering God afresh and anew in Holy Scripture, and allowing that to be the canon by which all other permutations—no matter what their accrued pedigree—are measured by. Barth’s theological approach is indeed Protestant in the best spirit of that Word; i.e. in the sense that his theology is first and foremost committed to the Protestant Scripture principal. When we look around at the landscape of Reformed theologies in the evangelical theologians today, I would argue that the same can’t be said, ultimately.


[1] Darren O. Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), Loc. 326, 334, 342, 350.

A Christological Collage: Reflecting on the Two-Natures, One Person of Jesus for Easter

As we remember the great reality that God in Christ has accomplished for the world during this Easter moment, I thought it would be appropriate for us to stop and consider a rather technical but important Christological jesuscollagereality. Namely, how ought we think of the relationship between the divine and human natures present in the one person of Jesus Christ? How we attempt to answer this question will have important implications in regard to what we think happened at the cross of Jesus Christ. For example Todd Norquist in a recent comment on the blog pondered: “I’m also sketchy on wt [sic] Christ, in his divine nature, was experiencing in the tomb–and at death.” And over at another blog that I was recently interacting act, one of its authors, Tom Belt articulated a related point in regard to considering the implications of a two-natured Christology (albeit in a different kind of context); Tom wrote,

The homoousion posits the consubstantiality of the Son/Logos with the Father. Chalcedon specifies two natures. One person, yes, but two natures (inseparable and unconfused). It’s via his divine nature that the Son is consubstantial with the Father and via his human nature that the Son is consubstantial with us…. That is, when I say the Son is not “reduced without remainder” to the constraints of his embodied/human context, I mean what Athanasius meant when he affirmed that while the Son was a babe in the cradle the SAME SON was sustaining the universe. One Person, yes, but two natures. And the natures are not collapsed into the constraints of Jesus human consciousness and embodied state.It seems to me that Kim F in his reply to Fr Aidan conflates the natures. He thinks that since there is one and only one subject (the Son) of the human sufferings that this must mean those sufferings define the divine nature. But that’s not at all an obvious ‘Christological’ truth picked up off the surface of reading the gospels, and it specifically denies Chalcedon. (see here)

Without getting into a problem with Tom’s kind of Nestorian-like explication of Chalcedonian christology (potentially, Nestorian, I would need further articulation from Tom on what he means in regard to ‘consubstantial with us’, he seems to elide the ground of both natures in the Son while wanting to affirm it; I would need to know how Tom deploys the concept of an/enhypostasis), what his quote identifies is the import, and maybe the continued confusion (or more charitably, difficulty) of how a two-nature one person Christology ought to function. Beyond Belt though, let me provide one more example, this time from my friend Steven Nemes, and a recent Good Friday blog post he just offered while reflecting upon this Easter season. Steven used Jürgen Moltmann’s theology of the cross to reflect on God and suffering, and of course Moltmann is Lutheran, so we will get a kind of distinct rendering of the communicatio idiomatum and how the two natures repose in the one person of Jesus Christ, which for Moltmann brings suffering into God’s life:

When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finite of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him (p. 276). (see here)

Given the above examples we can see how understanding the hypostatic union (the two natures of Jesus Christ, the divine and human) can affect the way we parse things, in particular, within a soteriological frame.

In response to this I am going to offer a quick reply by offering some quotes from my friend Darren Sumner, and an essay he has written (which represents a compressed version of his PhD work at Aberdeen). Darren will identify how this kind of discussion has occurred historically and in particular between the Lutherans and Calvinists. Darren as a Barth scholar, will offer an alternative kind of via media to what is somewhat represented by the Reformed view of this given by Tom Belt above, and the Lutheran application of this observed in the Moltmann quote.

We will start with Darren’s definition of the extra Calvinisticum which is the name given to the Reformed approach to thinking the two-natures of Christ juxtaposed with the Lutheran understanding of perichoresis or interpenetration between the two-natures of Christ (the communicatio idiomatum); and then I will close with Darren’s Barthian constructive proposal between these two extreme and historic approaches that has inhered in the Calvinists and Lutherans respectively. (And as I am writing this post I am running out of motivation and steam, so I might leave this post rather fragmented, and leave you to sort it out in the comment meta, if you so desire).

Here is Darren on definitions:

[T]he purpose of this article is to examine the dogmatic place of the ‘so-called’ extra Calvinisticum in an effort to determine whether it is an indispensable tenet of Christology – particularly in the Reformed tradition. This doctrine states that the Word of God is not entirely circumscribed by his assumed humanity, but continues to fill and sustain the universe even while he is incarnate in Jesus Christ. In other words he exists in two ways, both ensarkos and asarkos, because – as the Reformed dogmatics typically put it – finitum non capax infiniti. The term has its origins in Reformation debates over the Eucharist: the Reformed rejected both the bodily presence of Christ in the sacrament and the Lutherans’ innovative expansion of the communication idiomatum that undergirded it, since, they argued, there is no sharing of attributes between the natures. In its origins as a piece of negative theology – as the denial of Lutheran ubiquity and the genus maiestaticum – the extra Calvinisticum aimed at nothing more than this. It was an attempt by the Reformed to maintain: (1) the proper, Chalcedonian distinction between the natures, and (2) that the natures remain unaltered and undiminished. Therefore the Word is fully incarnate in the human Jesus, but is etiam extra carnem also outside the flesh.[1]

Darren on a Constructive Barthian Proposal Between the Calvinsts and Lutherans:

[T]he lives of the Word as asarkos and ensarkos both mutually participate in the one Christ, just as his two natures (or essences) mutually participate. This, for Barth, is simply another way of speaking of the hypostatic union – but speaking of it as a dynamic event between God and humanity and not as a static condition. The states of humiliation and exaltation ‘operate together and mutually interpret one another’, and this simultaneity allows us to affirm both that the Son is never limited to human form, never abandons the throne or ceases to sustain the universe, and also that he is one, undivided Subject who cannot be sought other than in Jesus Christ. It has the advantage of affirming what the Reformed took of value from the extra carnem without succumbing to its failings. It also binds the doctrine of the two natures to soteriology, not allowing it to float autonomously from the narrative of the New Testament. Where Lutheran Christology suggested that the Word crosses the gap between the Creator and the creature, and Reformed Christology that the Word bridges the gap (remaining on both sides), Barth’s actualist Christology suggests intead that in his person Jesus Christ closes the gap. God and humanity remain distinct, but are unequivocally reconciled in the event of the Son’s incarnate life.

It is evident, then, that Barth’s reconfiguration of the status duplex placed the difficult matter of the extra Calvinisticum in new light. It enabled him finally to articulate just where the Reformed deployment of this doctrine into the thorny field of Christology was coming up short, and how the life of the Logos asarkos may yet be affirmed (against Lutheran kenosis, in all its forms) in such a way as to reach the goal for which Calvin had set out, yet without succumbing to the dangers of a double Logos or an evacuation of the doctrine of the incarnation of any meaningful content. But where the humiliation of the Son of God and the exaltation of the Son of Man are understood to be a single event, his life beyond the incarnation no longer speaks the definitive word about his eternal identity.[2]

If I had more energy, this is where I would attempt to draw out some implications of what Darren has offered in an attempt to engage with all of the examples I have noted previously. But I will leave that for another time.



[1] Darren O. Sumner, “The Twofold Life of the Word: Karl Barth’s Critical Reception of the Extra Calvinisticum,International Journal of Systematic Theology Volume 15/1 (January 2013): 42-57.

[2] Ibid. Obviously (if it isn’t obvious see the following), these two paragraphs have been preceded by much detailed explication and argumentation by Darren; this is his summary of all of that.

The Despised Word of God

John Webster describes, well, the pitfalls associated with engaging with Scripture in academic mode. He has been developing how Scripture, critically engaged, has fallen prey to a dualism (nominalism) that results with the practice of engaging it from a purely naturalistic standpoint; instead of dealing with it as it is, God’s Word! And I would want to extrapolate and apply his point out further into the realm of not just the academic (“critical”) handling of the text of Scripture, but also how that gets fleshed out in non-academic ways. For either the academic or the non-academic (Christian), Scripture, when dealt with dualistically—pressing a hard line between a so called ‘sacred & secular’—results in engaging with a Text that has been annexed to our own proclivities. For the academic, this means developing tools of inquiry that treat Scripture as if it is something that man has control over instead of the place where God contradicts man’s tools and thoughts. For the non-academic, this kind of approach results in engaging with Scripture as if it is a place where I get my daily spiritual fix, it is a place, again, that I largely control (by my emotional state), instead of a place where God is free to contradict our ‘spiritual fixes’ and various emotional states (as he did with Job for example). Here is what Webster writes in regard to the academic (critical) side of a faulty understanding of Scripture’s ontology (or placement relative to its location in God’s Self communication):

Bible Page

[W]hatever one makes of the details, these kinds of narratives can at least serve to unsettle some of the habits which sustain much modern – by, for example, showing that historical criticism is as much a metaphysical as an historical or literary enterprise. But the pathologies are not unproblematic. As the doctrinal level, they can exhibit something of an imbalance toward the order of creation, and, within that locus, an unease about making much of the distinction between created and uncreated being; and, in at least some accounts, the order of creation outweighs the order of reconciliation. But a further point should be registered: the heart of the difficulty we face in attending to Scripture is not the conceivability of revelation’s taking creaturely form but our antipathy to it. Lost creatures (and the not-so-lost in the church) make Scripture’s humanity a ground for despising its embassy. We do not care for prophets and apostles, because they set before us the sermo divina; and so we spurn them – sometimes in high theory, but more often in baser ways. Once again, the history of conceptions of the Bible is spiritual as well as intellectual history, an episode in the wider course of the sinner’s rejection of the folly of the gospel and preference for ‘eloquent wisdom’ (1 Cor. 1.17). Prophetic and apostolic speech is contested (Jer. 15; Ezek. 2.3); it occurs in the history of rebellion of creatures against the divine Word. Thinking our way out of nominalism may be a necessary part of reconceiving the nature of Scripture and scriptural interpretation, but it can only take us to the threshold, so to speak. Once we are there, the real contest begins: between the prophets and apostles and those who will not listen to them, because they will not listen to God (Ezek. 2.7). [John Webster, Domain Of The Word: Scripture and Theological Reason, (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 12.]

When Webster refers to ‘nominalism’, this is the ‘dualism’ that I was referring to in my pre-word to the quote (we won’t get into detailing what nominalism entails at the moment). The basic point of Webster is hard core, and one that most Christians (so a time to be self-critical once again!) don’t want to cozy up to. We would rather just remain satisfied with our cushy pew seats, our casual quiet times (if we even have those), and our all to prevalent privatized faith where we have taken God’s Word captive to our own sentiment; and this captivity has been won precisely because of it. Meaning that we cannot even hear from God through Scripture because we think we are, and we aren’t; we aren’t because we have taken it captive by our own dire situations, our own life circumstances, and molded Scripture’s purpose into meeting those needs, and thus dis-allowing God’s “needs” to be heard through His Word against our words. We cannot distinguish God’s Word from our own, because we have made our words, His (all clothed in good purpose and good will, on our side).

The academic appropriation and engagement of Scripture flows, largely, from the posture I just sketched.

The Special Nature of Scripture, is only Special, First, Because of Jesus: The Order

Let me quote a friend of mine, Darren Sumner (a PhD student at Aberdeen, almost done) on Karl Barth’s understanding of Scripture—I will be getting into what Darren is sketching further, as I provide some quotes and reflection from T.F. Torrance on Scripture and its humanity later today — all of this is in continued response to a friend whom I work with, who still seems quite skeptical about the Special witness of Scripture amongst the range that a pluralistic world and society and cultures provide relative to other books that claim to be Holy … so his concern continues to be, ‘okay, but what makes the Christian Bible most holy, or exclusively holy?’; and of course my answer has to do with what Sumner highlights below—relative to Barth’s view and usage of Scripture—that is, the centrality that Jesus Christ is to the whole of Scripture. As Carl Henry underscored for us the other day, Jesus himself and his personal view of Scripture ought to be determinative for how others (Christians and non-Christians alike) seek to understand and engage the authority and formative role of Scripture. So the problem for the higher critic or plain old non-believing person is not ultimately with the Special nature of Scripture, but instead; it is with the Special reality of the personal-work of Jesus Christ—who is the reality of Scripture’s witness. So this ultimately becomes an issue of first order V. second order consideration; Jesus and who he is is of first order importance, if you reject who he is, then it will only make sense that you will reject the second order and derivative specialty of Scripture—sense Scripture, for the Christian, is not an self-enclosed book of aphorisms and ‘historicisms’, but instead it is a book that like John Calvin’s spectacles is opened up towards it reality, Jesus Christ. So my friend from work (who is reading this 😉 ), we need to talk about something even that much more basic and fundamental; that is your rejection of Jesus as the Self-revealing, Self-interpreting personal loving gracious God who became fully man (and remained fully God) in the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. Our discussions are always, at least from me, going to be conditioned by this central reality. Without further ado then, let us hear from Darren on Barth’s view of Scripture; and then later today or tomorrow I will follow with some dovetailing (and even a bit more pointed for my friend) comments from Scottish born (and student of Karl Barth) theologian Thomas Forsyth Torrance. Sumner writes:

[B]arth is often criticized for having a low view of the nature of Scripture — that it is “mere” witness to God’s revelation, and not revelatory itself. (See this post for a bit more on this topic.) What we see here is that Barth’s view of the function of Scripture (read: its authority for believers) is, in fact, quite high. From its sermons and teachings to its theology, from its worship to its sacramental practice and its mission in the world, the church stands under the authority of Holy Scripture. It cannot do an end-run around the Bible and appeal to Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit in any form other than the one in which they present themselves to us.

But the church’s speech, including its historic creeds, is derivative of this.  In short, the church only speaks truth in the formulation of dogma insofar as it is faithfully explicating the Word of God in Scripture. The standard by which the rightness of doctrine — or “orthodoxy” — is to be measured is ultimately not the creeds but the Scripture to which they point. This was the view of the Reformers. The creeds and confessions of the tradition do play a regulative role, of course, but this role is largely sociological. [Darren O. Sumner, see full post here]

So this is rather self authenticating, which is the point, about the nature of Scripture. This doesn’t get into what has been called ‘Text, Canon, & Transmission’ issues of Holy Scripture, but it does get us to the premise from which those issues (of Scriptural formation) ought to be understood; again, that is relative to the central role that Jesus Christ himself has as the ground upon which these other issues of canonization take their tenor and form. Without Jesus taking up the Old Testament promises as their New Testament fulfillment, and without his self-conscious understanding of all of this; the Scriptures we have today would never have taken shape or form, there would have been no Church and no Apostolic witness to give something form in the first place. In other words, the Church and Scriptures must of necessity presuppose upon the fact that Jesus is & was both their author and finisher. So my friend from work 🙂 … we are going to have to talk more about Jesus before we can talk about canon. If you’re concern is that we wouldn’t have Jesus without the canon of Scripture, as I just noted, that would be to fail to recognize the proper order that must be present in order for the conditions of the canonization of the Scriptures to be present in the first place. So there is a self-authenticating sense to the formation of the Scriptures, but only insofar as that self-authenticity is given its reality through its special witness bearing capacity towards its subject matter; that is the person of Jesus Christ. More to come …

“Who’s Reformed, And Who Cares?”

I always like it when someone thinks that I have made a good point 😉 ; so I thought I would share a comment that soon to be PhD from Aberdeen, Darren Sumner, just made on an older post of mine (and in response to one that Stephen Norris made on the same thread). The point that Darren believes is a good one, has to do with how we should define what it means to be included within the Reformed Faith of Protestant Christianity. This is somewhat of a debated issue (in-house), and so I think it would be helpful to share what Darren has shared on the topic. I will do that here, and then offer a few brief thoughts of my own. By the way, there are many classically Reformed proponents today who collapse what it means to be ‘Reformed’ into a fixed set of agreed upon Reformed Confessions (the so called Three Forms of Unity — viz. The Heidelberg Catechism, The Belgic Confession, and The Canons of Dort); if someone cannot sign off on even one of these ‘forms’ in toto, then their “Reformedness” is probably non-existent. The quote from Darren challenges this conception:

[B]obby, I think you make a good point, and it’s something to which I’m growing increasingly sensitive. What are the core principles of Reformed orthodoxy? Are these primarily doctrines (e.g. election and divine sovereignty construed in a particular way), or are they primarily ethics of the way in which theology is to be carried out (e.g. semper reformanda)?

While we may want to specify a handful of doctrines, my sense of the tradition and its founding is that the latter ethics are decisive. That’s why there is no single confessional statement of Reformed orthodoxy (as with the Lutheran Formula of Concord), but rather a broad tradition of regional confessions that share a great deal of doctrinal similitude. Even where we would specify some doctrines as necessary to what it means to be in the Reformed tradition — such as election and the sovereignty of God — the ethic requires that these allow for a range of interpretive positions and not a fixed doctrinal expression. This gives Reformed thinkers the freedom to continually re-examine and re-express the truths that are encountered in Scripture.

Not everyone will draw these boundaries quite the same, but the point is that Reformed thought allows for a range of options — similar to how George Hunsinger describes the Council of Chalcedon as permitting a range of orthodox talk about the Incarnation and not fixing a single expression. On these grounds, one must certainly judge Karl Barth as squarely within the broader Reformed tradition, even if his theology is not ultimately judged as part of “classic Reformed orthodoxy.” The greatest value of classic Reformed orthodoxy, in my view, is that classic Reformed orthodoxy does not have the last word.

I agree with Darren. I think Darren’s very last sentence sums this up nicely. As Karl Barth develops in his The Theology of the Reformed Confessions, the principled way of being ‘Reformed’ (versus Lutheran for example) is found in the Reformed’s insistence upon subordinating everything to the Holy Scriptures. Thus, all Confession making becomes subordinate (and thus only proximate, at their best) to the clarity of God’s Word to us in Scripture. The consequence of this is that there is nothing static or ‘fixed’ (as Darren has said) to appeal to when trying to define the parameters for what it means to be ‘Reformed’; and I should say nothing fixed in reference to looking to certain Reformed Confessions as the canon for what it means to be included within the family of the Reformed Faith. So the question for what it means to be Reformed is not an issue of Dogmatic import, but instead, as Darren has identified (along with Barth and others), the barometer is one that is found in the realm of the ethical; or we could say, that defining this issue, using ‘Reformed principles’, becomes a question that is ‘personal’ and not abstract and/or institutional.

In closing, I would say that the classically Reformed amongst us define the Reformed Faith in static ways, as symptomatic of their doctrine of God. Doesn’t everything come back to this? So ultimately, this issue does come back to a Dogmatic question; since even a person’s ethics are a result of how they conceive of God.

In closing, closing, let me suggest a reason why this even matters (e.g. who’s included in the ‘Reformed Faith’). It matters because truth matters. It matters because the principles of the Reformed Faith, if employed consistently (semper reformanda), would actually militate against what it means to be ‘Reformed’ (in some sectors, like Westminster Theological Seminary or the United Reformed Churches); and thus calls into question the validity of their Reformed status.