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The Character of God in Election. Miscellanies

At a personal existential level thought about election and reprobation is no small matter, or it shouldn’t be. It says much about whom God is; viz. the way God works in this area, or at least the way we conceive of God working in this area, indicates how it is that we conceive of God in the first place. This is why, at least for Karl Barth, to think a doctrine of God is not abstract from election/reprobation, but central to it. When we think of election it ought to conjure up the way we think of a God-world relation; i.e. election speaks to, again, the character of God, to the ways of God, and with whom he has to do. It is interesting, then, that this teaching often gets relegated to the bin of abstraction and speculation. True, the technical dogmatic words of ‘election’ and ‘reprobation’ are not found in Holy Scripture; but then again, neither is the word: ‘Trinity.’ So this is a matter of theological import, but not one that is not present in Scripture, rather it is “hidden” within the inner-logic of Scripture and allows Scripture to assert the things it does, one way or the other, about justification before God, so on and so forth.

As noted, for Barth, election became central to his doctrine of God and its development. It has a rather radical edge to it, particularly if we follow Bruce McCormack’s distillation and development of it. Indeed, McCormack’s development of Barth’s doctrine of election vis-à-vis doctrine of God has caused no small controversy. At first this ‘controversy’ was called the Companion Controversy, because McCormack’s chapter offering to The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth was the sort of watershed definitive point wherein McCormack drew out what he sees as the implications of Barth’s reformulation of a doctrine of election (juxtaposed with the classical position found in someone like John Calvin); it more recently has come to be called the ‘Barth Wars.’ George Hunsinger, Paul Molnar et al. have countered McCormack’s proposal, and attempted to keep Barth more ‘classical’ in his orientation when it comes to a doctrine of election. Hunsinger goes so far as to label the McCormack school as ‘the revisionists,’ whereas he calls his position ‘textual’ (i.e. implying that he is faithfully following the contours of Barth’s thought found concretely in the Church Dogmatics). This issue, for those involved in Barth studies, is well worn, and I would say almost passé; but only in a festering type of way. In other words, while this controversy has sort of warmed over, simply because of the passing of time and attention spans, doesn’t mean that anything has been resolved between the two sides. If you aren’t aware of all this, and even if you are, I thought I would share some insight into the history of this debate, as well as some of its material locutions; along with providing some perspective towards the background of McCormack’s own development and reception of Barth’s theology in this area. For help here I will enlist one of McCormack’s former PhD students, David Congdon. In David’s big book on Bultmann he offers the kind of detail I am hoping to provide, and so to his summary of these things we turn:

The debate surrounds McCormack’s now famous argument that Barth’s later theology, if it is to be consistent with his doctrine of election in KD 2.2, ought to make election logically prior to triunity: “The decision for the covenant of grace is the ground of God’s triunity and, therefore, of the eternal generation of the Son and of the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son. In other words, the works of God ad intra (the trinitarian processions) find their ground in the first of the works of God ad extra (viz., election).” See Bruce L. McCormack, “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 92–110, at 103. See also Bruce McCormack, “Karl Barth’s Historicized Christology: Just How ‘Chalcedonian’ Is It?” in Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 201–33, originally published in German in 2002, where he says that “it is precisely the primal decision of God in election which constitutes the event in which God differentiates himself into three modes of being. Election thus has a certain logical priority even over the triunity of God” (ibid., 218).

McCormack’s views on this matter find their origin in Jüngel’s  Gottes Sein ist im Werden. In this monograph Jüngel argues that God’s being is a historical event constituted by God’s free decision. “Decision,” Jüngel says, “does not belong to the being of God as something additional [Hinzutretendes] to this being, but rather, as event, God’s being is God’s own decision. ‘The fact that God’s being is event, the event of God’s act, must . . . mean that it is God’s own conscious, willed, and accomplished decision’ [KD 2.1:304/271]. What the doctrine of the Trinity already worked out is now confirmed by working out a concept of being appropriate to God: God’s being is constituted through historicity [Geschichtlichkeit].” Eberhard Jüngel,  Gottes Sein ist im Werden: Verantwortliche Rede vom Sein Gottes bei Karl Barth: Eine Paraphrase, 4th ed. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1986), 80. Later, in a reflection on the significance of Barth’s statement that “Jesus Christ is the electing God,” Jüngel states even more provocatively that “God has thus determined Godself in the second mode of being of the Trinity to be the electing God. ‘Jesus Christ is the electing God’ [KD 2.2:111/103]. In that here one of the three modes of being is determined to be the electing God, we have to understand God’s primal decision as an event in the being of God that differentiates the modes of God’s being” (ibid., 85).

McCormack’s argument in “Grace and Being” has initiated an intense debate within Barth studies regarding the relation between triunity and election, and specifically the nature of divine freedom. Many of these contributions are collected in Michael T. Dempsey, ed., Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). The most significant critique and response are George Hunsinger, “Election and the Trinity: Twenty-Five Theses on the Theology of Karl Barth,” Modern Theology 24, no. 2 (2008): 179–98, and Bruce L. McCormack, “Election and the Trinity: Theses in Response to George Hunsinger,” Scottish Journal of Theology 63, no. 2 (2010): 203–24. See also Bruce L. McCormack, “Trinity and Election: A Progress Report,” in Ontmoetingen: Tijdgenoten en getuigen: Studies aangeboden aan Gerrit Neven, ed. Akke van der Kooi, Volker Küster, and Rinse Reeling Brouwer (Kampen: Kok, 2009), 14–35; Bruce L. McCormack, “Let’s Speak Plainly: A Response to Paul Molnar,” Theology Today 67, no. 1 (2010): 57–65.[1]

There is much to consider here, but at this point I only want to underscore Hunsinger’s (and Molnar’s) primary critique of McCormack’s thesis. They both hone in on the apparent problem present in McCormack’s thesis: i.e. that he appears to make God’s being (his very inner life) contingent upon creation; upon God’s choice to not be God without his election of humanity for himself in Christ. The critique, ultimately, is that McCormack’s ‘Barthian’ presentation here suffers from a type of panentheism. Not only that, Hunsinger, in particular, goes after McCormack’s placement of election prior to God’s being as Triune; this, suggests Hunsinger, seems even logically (not just chronologically) implausible.

The above noted let me reign this in a bit. I started this post out with noting the idea that the doctrine of election is or should be a rather personal and existentialist reality. I suggested that this doctrine is inimical to one’s understanding of God and his relation to the world (particularly to creatures); that it is ultimately inimical to the way we think of God’s character. I then introduced us to an innovative way that election and theology proper were related in Barth’s theology; further detailing this move by way of introducing us to an internecine debate among Barth scholars involved in Barth studies. I want to now conclude this exercise by highlighting why I think wrestling through these issues remains seriously important; e.g. so engaging with why I think the personal-existential aspect of this doctrine is important for all those who by the Spirit say that Jesus is Lord.

Election is Christological, as such it is soteriological, as such it touches upon what it means to be alive (human) before God; it touches upon every waking aspect of who we are as creatures living before a Holy a God. It is important, therefore, to have a doctrine of election that has the ability to be concrete; that has the capaciousness to recognize how central God is to this reality; and what this doctrine, in particular, says about the character of God. Does God only love a select group of people based upon an absolute decree? Does God have to construct such a mechanism, as decrees, in order to ensure that his Pure Being status remains untouched by his creation; to ensure that he has no passions, that he has no moving parts in his inner life that might be unregulated by his simple being? Or does our doctrine of election start it’s thinking about a God-world relation in and from God’s personal self-givennness for us in the gift of the Son for the World; does our doctrine of election start from a person (and this is personal), or does it start from a set of propositions intended to ensure God’s status as the actual infinite?

I think God is personal; that his inner life is onto-relationally related in such a way that his inner being as God is given shape by his self-givenness (love) for the other in his own life. I think that this is the primal basis from whence we ought to think of a God-world relation; i.e. of election. We ought to think God from the way God decided we should think of him: from his Self Revelation and exegesis in the Son. If tradition gets in the way of that, or thwarts that, then that is bad tradition. Any tradition that nullifies the Word of God is bad tradition (cf. Mt. 15). In these instances the tradition needs to take a back-seat (subordinate) place relative to God’s Word.

What is primarily important to me about Barth’s reformulated doctrine of election—apart from the more technical issues in the ‘Barth Wars’—is how he focuses election (as everything else) in and around Jesus Christ in a very intense and concentrated manner. I.e. For Barth, election means: that Jesus Christ is both the electing God and elected human; that in his election to be human he elects all of humanity in a vicarious way, such that he takes on humanity’s “reprobate” status (cf. II Cor. 5.21). The wonderful exchange takes place (cf. II Cor. 8.9), and we, by God’s grace in Christ, receive his elect status for us as he takes our reprobate status with him into the grave and resurrects us with him in his elect status as the first fruits the first-born from the dead as the human for all of humanity. This says something about God’s character; it says that ‘God so loved the WORLD that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting/eternal life. It says that God loves humanity, and that he loves all of humanity with the same love that he loves his dearly beloved Son. This is meaningful to me.

And this now ends these rather fragmented, but hopefully at some level coherent, thoughts.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 173 n. 335.


Written by Bobby Grow

March 6, 2018 at 8:58 pm

Why Can’t I Just Read the Bible to Know Who God Is? Identifying the Modern Impact on Evangelicals and a Tentative Way Forward

Following up on the last post, let’s continue to think about how things have been conceived of in the history of the church’s thinking, and how things have potentially changed. When I write ‘potentially’ I use this passive to signal the push back I am anticipating to this particular post; I will attempt, throughout, to redirect some of the concerns that might arise in regard to the content I will be referring to in order to make my own peculiar point (cryptic enough yet?).

I am somewhere in-between on the spectrum that is between what we might call pre-modern and modern theology; my sensibilities tend heavily toward modern modes, but in such a way that I want to resource and retrieve the past for the 21st century church (and for myself). In my last post I decried the impact that synthesizing Aristotelian philosophy has had upon the development and grammarization of an ostensibly orthodox doctrine of God; but I didn’t provide any real alternatives. The content often shared here on The Evangelical Calvinist, and in our two edited books does get into alternative ways of developing a doctrine of God in conversation with the past categories. But in some ways I want to be more radical, yet still retaining my evangelical and Reformed identity; I want to be a theologian who is genuinely always reforming as that is dictated by dialogue with the living Word of God on an ongoing basis. I want to hold onto what George Hunsinger has called the ‘Chalcedonian Pattern’ in reference to Barth’s appropriation and engagement with the past, and allow that pattern to regulate the way forward—so recognizing that God has indeed spoken in the past, but under the realization that he continues to speak. This is my conviction: that God is not done with his church yet, and so I am unwilling to give certain periods of church history a sacrosanct status; in other words, I am unwilling to give the 16th and 17th centuries in the development of Protestant theology the type of end all status that I’d say 90% (or more) of conservative evangelical theologians are currently giving it today. Further, it is important to understand this (about me): I don’t ultimately see myself as a Reformed Catholic; if anything I see myself as a catholic Reforming. In other words, I am a Protestant. This means that, in principle, I go to Holy Scripture as my primary authority (not ecclesial tradition); and I realize that the Bible itself is not the end, but only the ground upon which I come into encounter with the living Word of God who stands behind Scripture giving it its telos or purpose or meaning.

So what’s an alternative way forward to thinking God? Answering this question becomes more challenging. Not because I don’t have my thoughts on this, but because the moment I share what I am about to share people will immediately read me into a particular category, read all the stereotypes of that category onto me, and then wash their hands of me and move on. How do I know people will do this? Because I’ve done it myself. All of that notwithstanding, let me share, indeed, an alternative way forward. What I am going to share is simply to register relative ways forward, not necessarily absolute; but I think it is something to be considered and reckoned with. The author I am sharing draws out certain conclusions about why he thinks modern theology has become a requirement, simply because of the developments of ideas in the history. I am more free-floating than that, and don’t think his conclusions are fully justified or necessarily able to be periodized in the way he wants to. In other words, I think the inclinations he ties fully into modern developments were in fact present at least as far back as the Nominalist medieval times. David Congdon writes of the shift that took place from doing premodern theology to modern theology this way (this will be a lengthier than normal quote):

What is the condition of possibility for a modern theology? In pursuing this question, we are not asking what it is that makes a theology modern as opposed to, say, premodern? We are rather asking, in typical transcendental form: Given that there is such a thing as modern theology, what must be the case in order to make such a theology possible? What must be true about the Christian faith to make sense, for example, of Karl Barth’s “reconstruction of Christian orthodoxy” under the conditions of modernity?[1] At a minimum, an answer to this problem must be that Christianity is intrinsically capable of being reconstructed. But then, what is it about the Christian message, the gospel, that permits, even empowers, this process of reconstruction?[2] How does one carry out this process responsibly?

Assuming that the notion of modern theology is not dismissed outright as oxymoronic—on the basis of the false belief that the conditions for modernity are antithetical to the conditions for Christianity—a typical rejoinder is that this line of inquiry is nevertheless asking about the conditions of possibility for liberal theology, understood as a modern reinterpretation of Christianity.[3] The assumption is that such a theology is beyond the bounds of genuine Christianity. Liberalism is repudiated as an “accommodation” to modernity, which conforms the gospel to an alien context that demands a thorough reconstruction of traditional doctrines.[4] Ironically, at the same time that liberalism is disparaged as an accommodation to modernity, mission is praised as a “contextualization” of the gospel for a particular culture. This presents us with a dilemma: the same logic rejected under the name of liberalism is affirmed under the name of mission. The only discernible difference, it seems, is chronological.[5] Reinterpreting cross- culturally is the gospel; reinterpreting crossculturally over time, apparently, is heresy. Christianity can be reconstructed synchronically but not diachronically. Matters are only made more confusing when we find Paul’s method in 1 Cor 9:19-23 defined as “missionary accommodation.”[6] Where exactly does mission end and the threat of liberalism begin?

The problem represented by the apparent tension between liberalism and mission comes to expression, however obliquely, in Joseph Cahill’s retrospective on Rudolf Bultmann’s legacy. “All forms of liberalism, be they political, social, economic, or religious,” he writes, “are ultimately based on accommodation—accommodating old truths to new realities.”[7] Later in the article, he then situates Bultmann in the context of “missionary efforts at propagating the gospel”:

[Matteo] Ricci’s visit to Nan-ch’angin in 1595, to Nanking in 1597, to Peking in 1601, and [Roberto] de Nobili’s work in India, beginning in 1610, were brief and early flashes across the religious sky—efforts at accommodation to the realistically pluralistic world which have only recently begun to have a permanent effect. The basic question they and their immediate followers raised (now surfacing in serious fashion) was whether or not different styles manifested in varying religious conventions, genres, habits, and linguistic modes of expression could conceal similar religious substances. In his own way, Bultmann raised the same question but confined it to the Bible and “modern man.” Could Christianity, by contact with supposedly alien religions, be subject to creative transformations? Could divergent axial mythologies be modified by deferential encounter? Could the assumed hegemony of one culturally postulated form of claimed transcendence create a common universe of discourse with another form? These questions posed by de Nobili and Ricci were logical extensions of the Bultmannian problematic.[8]

While the notion of “religious substances” is not exactly faithful to Bultmann’s thought, the problematic that Cahill describes certainly is. Unfortunately, he does not go on to thematize the question of mission and accommodation. He instead fleshes out the present cultural situation in terms of a “new axial period,” that is, a period shaped by new convictions, assumptions, and myths that shape one’s self-identity and consciousness. Cahill describes this new age as “dominated by historical consciousness.”[9]

By referring to historical consciousness Cahill draws on themes developed extensively by Bultmann’s contemporaries and students, especially Friedrich Gogarten and Gerhard Ebeling. According to Gogarten, the old metaphysical and teleological interpretation of the world and our existence in it, which understood the world to be the unfolding of an overarching divine plan, was replaced by a historical interpretation:

Just as the contents of a play are established beforehand in the major and minor roles which appear in it, so too the occurrences in this history are predetermined in the “spiritual substances of all hierarchies,” which “are united in the church into a mystical body, which extends from the trinity and the angels that are nearest to the trinity down to the beggar at the church door and to the serf kneeling humbly in the furthest corner of the church to receive the sacrifice of the Mass.” But since history is understood in this way as a kingdom of metaphysical essences or substances, moved teleologically in itself and encompassing the entire world in this teleology, we lose precisely what we understand as the actual occurrence, namely, the living personal experiences of particular individuals in their distinctiveness and responsibility, their historical significance. Their historicity is taken away when history anticipates them by occurring within the framework of metaphysical essences. And it is only because this metaphysical framework contains the life of human beings with all that has happened that they have a part in the history which takes place there.[10]

Modernity is the age in which this metaphysical understanding of history was called radically and irrevocably into question, as indicated paradigmatically by the rise of the historical-critical method. “Only with the collapse of traditional western metaphysics, i.e., with the loss of its self-evident character, did the historicity of existence fully enter into consciousness,” out of which arose “the freedom, but also the absolute necessity, to regard the historical [Historische] in its pure historicalness [Historizität].”[11] No longer was the hierarchical and essentialist “chain of being” taken for granted. No longer was the ecclesiastical tale of our given place in God’s order accepted on faith. It was no longer assumed that the old stories could narrate each person’s identity. For those institutions and ideologies that pend on this authority, new strategies were devised to shore up faith: most notably, Roman Catholics put forward the doctrine of papal infallibility in the early 1870s, while Reformed Protestants formulated the doctrine of biblical inerrancy in the early 1880s. Both sides were able to claim that such views were held long before they were codified in their modern form, and yet it is significant that these doctrines were codified when they were.

This brings us back to our starting question: what is the condition of possibility for a modern theology? To put it another way, what enables theology to address the collapse of traditional metaphysics and the rise of modern historical consciousness while remaining in genuine contact with the kerygmatic content of faith? How is it possible, to use Cahill’s phrase, for Christianity to “be subject to creativetransformations?”[12] The only satisfactory answer to this question is one that understands the logic behind such creative reconstruction as internal to Christianity. Understood appropriately, mission is this logic. It is what makes the transformations of Christian faith possible, insofar as mission is essentially the pursuit of vernacular modes of Christian existence. Mission is the daring venture of theological reconstruction. It articulates the possibility and process of (re)interpreting the faith for a new time and place. The task now, following on Cahill’s suggestive remarks, is to understand this missionary impulse at the heart of Christianity in conjunction with the hermeneutical problem posed by historical consciousness. In order to address the new mission situation of modernity we need a theology, conditioned by historical consciousness, that incorporates this missionary, and thus hermeneutical, logic into its very understanding of the gospel. This brings us to the immediate concern of the present study.[1]

I shared all of that to give you all the broader context from whence Congdon is working from. He has found his way forward, by and large, through the impulses provided for by Rudolf Bultmann; I have not. But what I want to really highlight is how things have shifted from the premodern to the modern; at least as far as the way the world and reality are conceived. Some folks simply reject this reality, but it’s interesting, because these folks, in many ways are simply reading many of the assumptions they were born under (i.e. as modern people) back into the history; as if 16th and 17th century thinkers were reading the Bible under the same lights as we currently do today. In other words, many 21st century evangelicals simply want to pretend like they aren’t “modern” and repristinate the past theological developments as if they aren’t involved in an interpretive process when they do that. I’d rather acknowledge my place as a modern person, and attempt to recognize any good that may have developed as a result of the times we live in and under (or those more close to us like in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries).

What I am really trying to do here is complexify and problematize how things currently stand for evangelicals. I grew up as a conservative evangelical, and in many ways I am still a conservative evangelical (although not of the Trumpian sort). Evangelicals are renowned for their desire to be Biblicists; those impulses are still present within me as well. I think it naïve to think we can read the Bible nakedly (i.e. de nuda scriptura or solo scriptura), but at the same time I want to allow Scripture (within an proper ontology of Scripture relative to its Dogmatic placement in the Domain of God’s life in Christ) to actually speak for itself; i.e. more than I think the metaphysics of the 16th and 17th century Protestant church allows for. The “modern shift” actually, I would argue, is what has ingrained this attitude toward being the type of Biblicists that evangelicals want to be. In other words, I think evangelical Protestants are much more a phenomenon of modernity than they are of the 16th and 17th century Protestant developments. This is not to say that that period (16th and 17th centuries) has no bearing on how evangelicals think about God so on and so forth, but instead it is to identify the type of Biblicist mode that orients the way modern evangelical Protestants look to the past from. It is a mode that is less metaphysical and more existential in orientation (and I’m not sure why that’s an inherently bad thing).

So we have shifted, in some important ways, and along with Congdon I actually think this shift in some ways is inescapable; and I even think there are many things of value as a result of the modern shift. One of the values I see is that we are invited to look more closely at the person and work of Jesus Christ as the lens through which we might construct a knowledge of God. In other words, if in fact we have moved beyond an essentialized universe constructed by a kind of hierarchical interlocked chain of being- from-God-to-all-other-contingent-reality (so Aristotle, Aquinas et al.) then we are no longer to read godness off of the discoverable world (as the philosophers did). We are, as Christians, at that point, fully and absolutely contingent upon God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ in order to know who God is. This is a valuable thing, I think; and it’s a value that someone like Karl Barth not only realized but lived into in his theologizing (and Thomas Torrance benefited greatly from this as well).

This is my tentative way forward. I think what Congdon notes in regard to mission is very important. Missionaries have to learn new languages, become enculturated, and learn the customs of the people groups they come to live with and among. As this process takes place the natural outflow is to begin the process of translation; translation presupposes a stable reality, or a fixed reality that is translatable (i.e. the objective reality of God’s Triune life). This is what I think is required for the 21st century church. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as translating from English to German; as we have been noting, the way reality itself is conceived of in the modern and now postmodern periods is quite distinct from the so called premodern (although we can see antecedents to the modern in Nominalism, and other currents of past times). As a result new categories for thinking reality, and those categories and the pressures they create come to bear upon the way Christians think God. They don’t change who God is, but they change our understanding of God in some important ways; and this is why Congdon was intent on ending what we heard from him by highlighting the importance of hermeneutics.

Yes, conservative evangelical and reformed thinkers can pretend they are not modern and postmodern people, but they are. They can attempt to repristinate the past, and somehow re-enculturate the 21st century with the 16th and 17th centuries as found in Protestant and Catholic Western Europe. But why? Do we really want to allow the BIBLE and its reality to genuinely regulate the way we think God, or would we rather allow the PHILOSOPHERS do that? As it currently stands, I’d say the philosophers are winning the day in the evangelical/reformed world.

I’m not claiming to have an absolute way forward; I’m simply noting a problem that I see in the current way for doing evangelical/reformed theology. I’m not suggesting that we see ourselves as some new breed of latter day saints who think that the church was corrupt in all its teaching up until the “liberation” of the modern period. Instead I am suggesting that we allow some of the goods provided for by the modern period to disentangle God from the onerous baggage that has accrued to his name through the overly-laden philosophical categories imposed upon him. I am asking us to consider some deconstruction when it comes to synthesizing God with metaphysics that end up distorting who he has revealed himself to be (I contend). I am asking us to think that God is actually Love, and really does have passions and emotions, and that these aren’t simply figures of speech. I am asking us to allow Holy Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ to be the standard by which we determine whether or not our conception of God is orthodox, and not bequeath that privilege to the philosophers who supposedly discovered the “God-categories” latent in the universe.

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

Written by Bobby Grow

December 29, 2017 at 7:28 pm

Making a Distinction; an Existential Theologian vis-à-vis Sapiential Theologian: Finding the Dialectical in the Singular Person, Jesus Christ

David Congdon offers an insightful quote on the distinction between being an existential theologian versus a sapiential one; for his purposes he is using this distinction to help draw some lines between Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. Whoever the characters are, whether Luther/Aquinas (which is the original pairing), Barth/Bultmann et al. I think the distinction is an instructive one, and so I thought I would share it.

Existential theology is the way of doing theology from within the self-actuation of our existence in faith, as we submit to God in the obedience of faith. Its affirmations are so formulated that the actual faith and confession of the speaker are not merely necessary presuppositions but are reflexly thematized. Sapiential theology is the way of doing theology from outside one’s self-actuation in the existence of faith, in the sense that in its doctrinal statements the faith and confession of the speaker is the enduring presupposition, but is not thematic within this theology. This theology strives to mirror and recapitulate God’s own thoughts about the world, men, and history, insofar as God has disclosed them.[1]

The relative distinction is something akin to doing theology from below or from above; the existential (below) would be more soteriologically/theoanthropologically oriented while the sapiential (above) would be more theology proper oriented;  while the dialectical, we might constructively surmise, might be located in the Christological frame (where the below and above intersect and implicate in the singular person of Jesus Christ as the Theanthropos).


[1] Otto Hermann Pesch, “Existential and Sapiential Theology—The Theological Confrontation Between Luther and Thomas Aquinas,” in Catholic Scholars Dialogue with Luther, ed. Jared Wicks (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1970), 61-81, at 76-77 cited by David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 71-2.

Written by Bobby Grow

December 22, 2017 at 5:12 pm

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

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

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

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

I wrote the following in my Christianity Today article:

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

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


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

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

‘Revelation’ is Personal: With Reference to Congdon

barthexegeteThe following quote will be an example of how Karl Barth’s understanding of ‘revelation’ works within his own theoretical schematization of things. Bruce McCormack has also developed this in one of his chapters in his book Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth. The following quote comes from one of McCormack’s former PhD students, David Congdon (from David’s
own published PhD dissertation on Bultmann). Let’s read the quote, then I will close by reflecting on what Congdon has to say.

Jüngel’s central thesis is that, contrary to appearances, Barth’s deployment of the doctrine of the Trinity at the opening of his Kirchliche Dogmatik is not an evasion of hermeneutics but rather a profound engagement with the hermeneutical problem. Barth’s trinitarian theology is, in fact, a form of hermeneutical theology. This is true in two closely related respects. First, “revelation is the self-interpretation [Selbstinterpretation] of this God,” according to Barth. God’s self-revelation in the economic Trinity is an interpretation of the immanent Trinity, and thus it is neither an addition to nor a direct presence of the eternal being of God. God’s being ad extra in the economy of grace corresponds to God’s being ad intra. The event of revelation is therefore the “self-unveiling” (Selbstenthüllung) of the eternal being of God, but it is an unveiling in and through a veil. Or as Barth says elsewhere: “the Deus revelatus is the Deus absconditus.” God is hidden in God’s revelation and not apart from it. That is to say, there is no divine being-in-itself that remains hidden from or alien to the self-giving of God in history, but neither is the self- giving of God one that grants unmediated access to the divine nature. Jüngel glosses this by simply stating that “revelation is that occurrence in which the being of God comes to speech.” Put in hermeneutical terms, “if revelation is the self-interpretation of God, then in it there occurs the fact that God interprets Godself as the one whom God is.”[1]

The context I take this from, in Congdon’s book, is a discussion Congdon is having on the relationship between Barth and Bultmann and their respective projects. He is noting how, as Jüngel underscores, Barth’s and Bultmann’s projects are more complementing rather than disparate. But I simply wanted to lift the quote out of that context in order to give insight into what can sometimes be a source of consternation for many who end up critiquing Barth.

When Barth speaks of ‘revelation’ proper his reference is informed by what Congdon describes above. So revelation proper for Barth is first and bound up in a personal Self-giveness of Godself in the Son, Jesus Christ. In other words, and in brief, revelation for Karl Barth is not what we encounter on paper but in the second Person of the Trinity; so Revelation is ‘Personal’ by definition for Barth.

Can the Bible in this framework and theory of revelation be understood as ‘revelation?’ It can be understood as part of the revelatory event, but Scripture itself can only be thought of as a second part of revelation as it bears witness to and gives way to its reality in Jesus Christ. And in this way the Bible is God’s Bible and not ours; and in this way, then God is able to encounter us as we encounter Him in Jesus Christ through the words of Scripture in a way that allows Him to confront us, and contradict our ways by His. Scripture can do that, as can Proclamation of Scripture as they both give way to their source and reality in Jesus Christ.

The point of what Congdon is highlighting is that Revelation is not something that we can control or grasp; it is something of God’s grace for us (pro nobis) that He gives to us at His direction and determination. I can endorse this concern and desire. And I think understanding Revelation as primarily ‘Personal’ is indeed the way to go when it comes to our thinking here. I also think that this idea, of Barth’s in particular, can constructively be appropriated and developed in a way that fits in quite well with what might be considered a more Traditional (‘pre-critical’) conception of Holy Scripture.

[1] David Congdon, Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 56.

Written by Bobby Grow

July 22, 2015 at 4:50 pm

David Congdon’s Description of Analogy of Being/Faith: And the Difference it Makes in evangelical Calvinism

Myk Habets’ and my book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church was published and released back in June 2012; time flies. He and I co-davidcongdonwrote a couple of chapters in that book (which was an edited book), and then I wrote a personal chapter of my own. The title of my chapter is Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either Through Christ or Through Nature.” In it I attempt to creatively sketch Thomas Torrance’s approach to doing theology through the analogy of faith contrariwise to the classical approach of doing theology through the analogy of being; once I finish this sketch I apply these two disparate approaches to their outworkings into the composition of a variety of Reformed Confessions and a Catechism.

I just started reading David Congdon’s published PhD dissertation (which he obtained at Princeton Theological Seminary) entitled The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology. In a nutshell David attempts to reframe the normal approach of reading Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth at cross-grain against each other; David attempts, in other words to ‘demythologize’ how Bultmann and Barth have been read and seeks to bring constructive rapprochement to Bultmann/Barth reception. As I am getting started into the book Congdon offers up a description of what the analogia entis (analogy of being) and analogia fidei (analogy of faith) entail; he writes:

In order for a real encounter to take place, God must communicate Godself to humanity. For Barth, God’s gracious self-communication in Jesus Christ constitutes the only true presupposition of theology. All other purported presuppositions apart from the communicative actuality of God are false; they are, in fact, forms of human idolatry. Human beings are fundamentally incapable of speaking faithfully and authentically about God on the basis of some starting point in themselves (i.e., “natural theology”). For this reason Barth draws a basic distinction between the analogia entis and the analogia fidei: the analogy of being claims that language can grasp revelation, whereas the analogy of faith claims that revelation can grasp language. The analogia entis—which operates as an analogia nominum whereby God is linguistically grasped as a name (nomen)—is the “capture” or “conquest” (Eroberung) of revelation by language in the form of “logical construction.”[23] This is what Jüngel identifies as metaphysics or mythology, which is premised on the natural capacity of language to speak of God. By contrast, the analogia fidei, understood as language captured by revelation, presupposes the actuality of God’s speech as the basis for the possibility of language corresponding to God. And since God’s communicative action is the covenant of grace in Christ that forms the internal basis for all creation, the language-capturing event of God’s revelation is an event that “brings language to its essence,” and thus “language is brought to its essence where God brings Godself to speech.”[1]

After providing these distinctions David proceeds to discuss some technical things about how this all works in Barth’s theology vis-à-vis Bultmann’s. For our purposes I simply want to elaborate on how impactful and important this distinction between the ‘analogy of being’ and ‘analogy of faith’ are for what we are continuing to do within evangelical Calvinism. If you fail to grasp the distinction described by David then you will always fail to read what we are doing with evangelical Calvinism. You will read us the way Roger Olson and Kevin Vanhoozer do; as if we are incoherent in our theological method and conclusions. You will attempt to superimpose the analogy of being method of doing theology on top of the analogy of faith style that we actually do.

Beyond this, let me highlight something for you. The analogy of being works from one order and the analogy of faith from another. In a very simplistic way of elucidating this, what I mean is that the  analogy of faith way, in a principled manner, believes that for any communication about God to be intelligible that its only source for coherence and sensibility must be his own Self-interpreting Word in Jesus Christ; as such it is an exercise in faith. It attempts to deal with a problem, as Congdon notes, with the problem of human language being able to speak of God who is ineffable and unapproachable. It does not seek a solution by simply asserting that human language has an inherent capacity to capture revelation or to speak theologically about God (i.e. the analogy of being) in abstraction (like from purum naturum ‘pure nature’). Instead, as David notes, it presumes upon the theological reality of Covenant, and the Barthian idea that God in Christ is the inner reality of creation itself; thus creation’s ‘coherence’ only finds reality as it constantly and freshly by the Spirit is referred to Jesus Christ as its goal, ground and grammar.

I hope this makes some sense to you. This is where evangelical Calvinism, Barth, Torrance et. al. distinguish ourselves; it is a hermeneutical thing. And hermeneutics (i.e. the superstructure through which we interpret reality) shapes and determines all of our conclusions about everything: i.e. exegetical, ethical, theological, political, etc. This is why it will never be sufficient to simply try and read evangelical Calvinism through the analogy of being; because we are not interpreting reality through the suppositions that fuel the analogy of being, we instead have a different hermeneutic and theory of revelation.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 55 Scribd version.