The Evangelical Calvinist

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Archive for the ‘Dialectical Theology’ Category

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.

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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.

Theology is Really Dialogue with God. What Does It Mean to be Dialectical in Our Thought?

I was going to write a post after I got some shut eye quoting the exact quote I quote in full from Barth in this already written post (sometimes I even surprise myself at my prolificacy in blog posts). Anyway, this really only serves as an introduction to what being dialectical meant, theologically, for Barth. What I provide in this post requires further explanation and elaboration; it requires to be broken down in even more accessible ways—so I intend to write another post doing that at some point. But until then read this. 

Instead of thinking about theology as an analytical science such as jesuspraysphilosophical inquiry represents I think it would be much better if we started with the confessional reality that ‘God has spoken’ (Deus dixit). If we approach theology this way our categories will be different (from the typical ways that theology is usually construed, and then even the usual ways will take on a different hue), and our capacities to think more freely and imaginatively about how we can speak to and about God will be expanded in fruitful ways; I would suggest.

I am inspired to think like this from no one less than Swiss theologian Karl Barth (I bet you’re totally surprised!). And so let’s hear further from him on this, and engage with what he calls dialectic by which what he really means is dialogue; and we could really call ‘prayer’ theologizing. He writes (at length):

What does dialectic mean? To put it innocuously and in a way that should awaken confidence, dialektein means to converse with others, to deal with them, to discuss with them. Dialectic means, then, thinking in such a way that there is a dialogue. Two are needed for this. There must be two incomparable but inseparable partners in my thinking: a word and a counter-word, for example, faith and obedience, authority and freedom, God and man, grace and sin, inside and outside, etc. How does the counter-word, and therefore the dialogue, come to have a place in my thinking? First I think pious words before God that are non-dialectically neutral, as ought to happen in the thinking of faith and obedience. I even try to think about God himself with these words of mine. But I cannot succeed. For every time, on the one side, when I believe that I have thought about God, I must remember that God is subject, not object. I have to turn around, then, and think radically, on the other side, whence I came in order to be able to do this. When this situation is seen again at any point there arises the dialectical relation of two concepts. Dialogue takes place in this relation, and to that extent, like all dogmatic thinking, it is a dialectical dialogue. Thinking nondialectically would mean in principle not thinking before God. Before God human thoughts become dialectical.

Everything depends, then, on the dialogue being conducted honestly and bravely. It must not be like maneuvers or party gatherings (mere tensions of unreal opposites, victory assured), or, as Schleiermacher, a matter of feeling. Only the object is transcendent. For the sake of this object we do not want to be transcendent. We take every antithesis seriously even at the danger of contradiction. In the movement of our thinking we point to the object. We break off the dialogue and speak a nondialectical last word [?] only when new problems come to light.

In the passage of Israel through the Red Sea [Exod. 14:19-30] the Red Sea reminds us of words without knowledge that are not God’s Word. The staff of Moses is dogmatic thinking, the thinking of faith and obedience. The waves on the right hand and the left are words and counterwords which inexplicably become still. The people of Israel suggests the knowledge of God, the Word of God which is spoken. Pharaoh is the kind of thinking that tries to achieve the same result without this object.

No one can think completely nondialectically, not Luther, Schleiermacher, or even Althaus. The only question is whether we have more or less dialectical courage, whether we are more or less ready for the true dialectic that is demanded here. The ultimate issue is very simple. To think dialectically is to acknowledge that we are in contradiction, that we are sinful and fallen, that we are people who, not on our own inquisitive initiative, but because of the Word of God that is spoken to us, cannot escape giving God glory and confessing that we are only human with our questions, but also — and here already is the dialectic — confessing God and God alone with his answer even as we confess ourselves. The dialogue with which this twofold confession begins in our thinking; the unheard-of movement, not between two poles — God is not the one pole and we the other — but between us in our totality and God in his; the dynamic which grips every word because in this dialectic it is either the divine norm or the human relation to this norm; the world of doubtful but promising, of promising but doubtful relativities that open up here, encircled both above and below by the sole of deity of God — this is dogmatic dialectic. It will no longer be needed in heaven. With the angels and the blessed we will have at least a share in God’s central view of things. But we need it on earth, and we will be thankful that we have it like any good gift of God. Let us see to it that we use it to God’s glory, not as a game, but as the serious work of the catharsis of our pious words. How are these words to be purified for the purpose that they should serve if we do not think them together with the Word of God that is to be proclaimed through them, if we do not think dialectically?[1]

To think nondialectically according to Barth is to think thoughts about God that are not first before God; thoughts that could be thought about God that have never been in con-versation with God, and brought before the bar of his Holy Word. Contrariwise to do theology ‘dialectically’ (or in dialogue, or dialogically) trades on the reality and belief that God has indeed spoken, and in a way that invites us to speak back to him in light of what he has spoken and speaks. So we are to pray; that is to theologize.

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1991), 311-12.

Written by Bobby Grow

November 18, 2016 at 2:16 am

Mysterium Trinitatis: George Hunsinger on Barth’s Trinitarian Dialecticism, and the Deus Incarnandus

Here is one more post from another old blog of mine from back in 2008. This one is also engaging with George Hunsinger, but this time with reference to uncle Karl rather than Torrance. The way I run with the quote from Hunsinger is interesting to me as I look at it again. You will also notice reference to Halden Doerge’s blog, Inhabitatio Dei, which no longer exists (although I trinitylogohave found a cached version of his blog, but I could not find the blog post I referenced in this post). Anyway, maybe you’ll find this post interesting. I actually think the quote could be applied to the ongoing eternal functional subordination (EFS) debate currently underway among the evangelicals and Reformed.

This post was prompted by this one, McCabe on the Trinity, over at Inhabitatio Dei. The following is George Hunsinger articulating Barth’s view on the Trinity. He is discussing how Barth dealt
with oneness/threeness, being/becoming, in the life of God’s eternal ousia.

God’s life takes a particular form. It resides, says Barth, in the “process of generation” whereby God “posits himself as the living and loving God” (II/1, pp. 305, 302). That is, God’s life is the process by which he posits himself as the Holy Trinity. His life is a life of free distinction and communion in the perichoresis of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the freedom of his eternal love, “God lives as he who is” (II/1, p. 307). God is the One who lives in the perichoresis of the three hypostases, “in their being with each other and for each other and in each other, in their succession one to another” (II/1, p. 297). Therefore, God’s being, Barth concludes, does not exclude but includes becoming. If it is possible to speak of “an eternal self-realization” in God (II/1, p. 306), it can only be in the sense of a perpetual movement from perfection to perfection. The unity of the triune God, Barth states, is “the unity of a being one which is always also a becoming one” (I/1, p. 369). It is a unity always becoming one because it is perpetually positing itself as three. With respect to the Trinity Barth writes: “What is real in God must constantly become real precisely because it is real in God (not after the manner of created being). But this becoming (because it is this becoming) rules out every need of this being for completion. Indeed, this becoming simply confirms the perfection of this being” (I/1, p. 427). God’s life in and for himself, his inner life in love and freedom, his being in the process of becoming, his one ousia in thee hypostases in the process of perichoresis, is a perfect work (opus perfectum) that occurs in perpetual operation (in operatione perpetuus) (I/1, p. 427). In the dynamism of his one eternal life, God, who is his own basis, his own goal, and his own way from the one to the other, continually becomes who he is.[1]

With the above in mind, apply this being/becoming in the life of God to the incarnation of Christ; what does this imply? It implies that in the very ousia or being of God, the Son is always and already becoming deus incarnandus (God in the flesh Jn 1:14). In other words, what Jesus becomes in ‘historic time’, in the man from Nazareth, His “being” has always been in supra-time. Does this then necessarily mean that Jesus has always had hair, bones, and skin? No! It only means that Who Jesus is, has always been oriented toward assuming hair, bones, and skin. Maybe an analogy would be helpful, John 1:18 says: No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. . . . , to use the language of ‘bosom’ and take it to its breaking point: Jesus, just like a fetus in its mother’s womb, is truly and completely all that He will be, constituently, in His “being”, what He “becomes” in the man from Nazareth. Sorry that was crude.

In this sense, then, as with the very trinitarian life of God, historic time remains distinct from “super-time” (eternity) insofar as “being” is distinct from “becoming.” In other words the who (ousia) determines the what (hypostases), while at the same time the who and the what are held together in an inseparable informing tension of perichoresis. I think this helps us avoid, when thinking about the inter-relationship between super-time and historic-time, falling into a process notion of God’s being; which does not have a doctrine of perichoresis holding these two concepts of time in tension. Which results in the inversion of what Hunsinger describes above, i.e. that historic-time and super-time become indistinguishable, in essence allowing historic time to be determinative of super-time.

I think Barth, according to Hunsinger, is right to give precedence to God’s ousia, while at the same time not subordinating His hypostases which is upheld by a strong doctrine of perichoresis. I wonder if McCabe (the article linked above) has a doctrine of perichoresis in his thinking on this? I also wonder if Barth spoke of perichoresis as prominently and explicitly as Hunsinger attributes to him?

Sorry, my reflections above are a bit crude and organic, but hey I am thinking out-loud here 🙂 .

The way I applied this to the incarnation is interesting; I don’t think I would do the same today if I were to attempt to reflect once again on this quote from Hunsinger. I think today what stands out about the quote from Hunsinger is how it illustrates how Barth’s Trinitarian dialecticism looks and works as a theological program; how it reveals the way Barth attempted to re-work and work within the categories of the tradition; how Barth attempted to engage with what indeed is the mysterium Trinitatis.

[1] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 192-93.

 

Written by Bobby Grow

July 31, 2016 at 11:52 pm

Theology is really dialogue with God.

Instead of thinking about theology as an analytical science such as jesuspraysphilosophical inquiry represents I think it would be much better if we started with the confessional reality that ‘God has spoken’ (Deus dixit). If we approach theology this way our categories will be different (from the typical ways that theology is usually construed, and then even the usual ways will take on a different hue), and our capacities to think more freely and imaginatively about how we can speak to and about God will be expanded in fruitful ways; I would suggest.

I am inspired to think like this from no one less than Swiss theologian Karl Barth (I bet you’re totally surprised!). And so let’s hear further from him on this, and engage with what he calls dialectic by which what he really means is dialogue; and we could really call ‘prayer’ theologizing. He writes (at length):

What does dialectic mean? To put it innocuously and in a way that should awaken confidence, dialektein means to converse with others, to deal with them, to discuss with them. Dialectic means, then, thinking in such a way that there is a dialogue. Two are needed for this. There must be two incomparable but inseparable partners in my thinking: a word and a counter-word, for example, faith and obedience, authority and freedom, God and man, grace and sin, inside and outside, etc. How does the counter-word, and therefore the dialogue, come to have a place in my thinking? First I think pious words before God that are non-dialectically neutral, as ought to happen in the thinking of faith and obedience. I even try to think about God himself with these words of mine. But I cannot succeed. For every time, on the one side, when I believe that I have thought about God, I must remember that God is subject, not object. I have to turn around, then, and think radically, on the other side, whence I came in order to be able to do this. When this situation is seen again at any point there arises the dialectical relation of two concepts. Dialogue takes place in this relation, and to that extent, like all dogmatic thinking, it is a dialectical dialogue. Thinking nondialectically would mean in principle not thinking before God. Before God human thoughts become dialectical.

Everything depends, then, on the dialogue being conducted honestly and bravely. It must not be like maneuvers or party gatherings (mere tensions of unreal opposites, victory assured), or, as Schleiermacher, a matter of feeling. Only the object is transcendent. For the sake of this object we do not want to be transcendent. We take every antithesis seriously even at the danger of contradiction. In the movement of our thinking we point to the object. We break off the dialogue and speak a nondialectical last word [?] only when new problems come to light.

In the passage of Israel through the Red Sea [Exod. 14:19-30] the Red Sea reminds us of words without knowledge that are not God’s Word. The staff of Moses is dogmatic thinking, the thinking of faith and obedience. The waves on the right hand and the left are words and counterwords which inexplicably become still. The people of Israel suggests the knowledge of God, the Word of God which is spoken. Pharaoh is the kind of thinking that tries to achieve the same result without this object.

No one can think completely nondialectically, not Luther, Schleiermacher, or even Althaus. The only question is whether we have more or less dialectical courage, whether we are more or less ready for the true dialectic that is demanded here. The ultimate issue is very simple. To think dialectically is to acknowledge that we are in contradiction, that we are sinful and fallen, that we are people who, not on our own inquisitive initiative, but because of the Word of God that is spoken to us, cannot escape giving God glory and confessing that we are only human with our questions, but also — and here already is the dialectic — confessing God and God alone with his answer even as we confess ourselves. The dialogue with which this twofold confession begins in our thinking; the unheard-of movement, not between two poles — God is not the one pole and we the other — but between us in our totality and God in his; the dynamic which grips every word because in this dialectic it is either the divine norm or the human relation to this norm; the world of doubtful but promising, of promising but doubtful relativities that open up here, encircled both above and below by the sole of deity of God — this is dogmatic dialectic. It will no longer be needed in heaven. With the angels and the blessed we will have at least a share in God’s central view of things. But we need it on earth, and we will be thankful that we have it like any good gift of God. Let us see to it that we use it to God’s glory, not as a game, but as the serious work of the catharsis of our pious words. How are these words to be purified for the purpose that they should serve if we do not think them together with the Word of God that is to be proclaimed through them, if we do not think dialectically?[1]

To think nondialectically according to Barth is to think thoughts about God that are not first before God; thoughts that could be thought about God that have never been in con-versation with God, and brought before the bar of his Holy Word. Contrariwise to do theology ‘dialectically’ (or in dialogue, or dialogically) trades on the reality and belief that God has indeed spoken, and in a way that invites us to speak back to him in light of what he has spoken and speaks. So we are to pray; that is to theologize.

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1991), 311-12.

Written by Bobby Grow

February 24, 2015 at 2:00 am

Thesis 9. Evangelical Calvinism is a form of dialectical theology.

*The following is taken from chapter 15 from our Evangelical Calvinism book. Myk Habets and I cowrote this chapter which offers 15 theological theses that represent Myk Habets’ and my understanding of what Evangelical Calvinism entails at least by way of contours of thought.

Thesis 9. Evangelical Calvinism is a form of dialectical theology.

The systematic theology of Evangelical Calvinism is dialectical in character rather than strictly philosophical or analytical. It is not content to formulate a system of theology whereby Christianity is reduced to timeless, logical truths about God. The God of biblical revelation presents us with logical problems, seeming paradoxes, surprising features which cannot simply be resolved by discursive reason. “Thus, dialectical theology is a protest against rationalistic religion in whatever form it occurs, whether the natural theology of Thomism, a theological liberalism shaped by idealist philosophy or a conservative orthodoxy that reduces theology to logically systematized propositions.”39 Padgett and Wilkins also point out that dialectical theology has two additional tendencies, “a rejection of any philosophical system as normative for theology and a substructure, either implied or explicit, informed by existentialism.”[1]

Those working within an Evangelical Calvinism find no compulsion to allow strictly logico-deductive reasoning to determine the final outcomes of their systematic theology, preferring instead to use the conceptual apparatus of philosophy as a servant of the Word so that a truly theo-logic dominates. Charles Partee provides an important and correct insight on John Calvin in this regard, which resonates with Evangelical Calvinism’s approach:

Calvin’s theology is properly concerned for right answers, but his right answers should be understood not as a logically unassailable system of ideas but in terms of their adequacy as a heartfelt confession of faith attempting to protect the mystery of God’s revelation. This confessional nature of theology takes precedence over all its rational truth, not even a system rationally explicating revealed truth. Calvin’s theology is a systematic offering of faithful witness to the truth revealed by God in Jesus Christ.[2]

Evangelical Calvinists (attempt to) resist the urge to fill in the gaps, and remain satisfied with the dialectical situation that often occurs as a result of studying the living triune God and his Word written.

The canon of Scripture knows of no deterministic logical reasoning; this, we argue, is the product of Aristotelian, Augustinian, Newtonian, and much later, Scholastic “causal connections.” The alternative is of course a created connection in which God reveals himself (personally and propositionally) in an analogous way by means of his Word and Spirit. When philosophical causal connections are adopted as the totality of ones hermeneutic then all manner of topics in Scripture lapse into absurdity (or at the least, are reduced to rational categories and not historical ones). Here one thinks of such dialectical issues as Divine sovereignty and human free will; or salvation and damnation; or the prohibition against “seeing” God and living and the testimony of Scripture of those people who do “see” God and do live. This is not to deny that free rational agency and compulsion by objective reality go together: they do—but they do so within the created categories given to us by the God who alone is free and who, in his freedom, creates humanity in his image but with a contingent freedom and thus with a contingent confession.[3]

An illustration may prove useful at this point; the example of human free-will. We have to assert, in light of Scripture and the life of the Incarnate Son, that our freedom is limited, because it is contingent, but in this limitation we find it is truly free when assessed, not by causal connections we may make within creation (a closed system of reference), but free in relation to God who alone is free. We are thus free for something—to do the will of God, and not free in any sense of abstract causality. Thus free-will is defined by the Apostle Paul, in light of the Christ event, as a will enslaved to the will of God: “Paul a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom 1:1 NAS B). Jesus himself defined human free-will in the same way when he taught us to pray to the Father that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt 6:9-10). Jesus further modeled such free human will when he stated, repeatedly, that he came to do the will of the one who sent him and not his own will: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). Thus we affirm that free-will is God’s will made our own and not our self-will: “For whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:50). Self-will is, to the contrary, slavery to sin. Thus causal connections—the hermeneutics of Classical Theism and Classical Calvinism—are logical but not theo-logical. Thus Evangelical Calvinism operates with a theo-logical hermeneutic and not simply a philosophical logic that results in determinist and dualist ways of thinking and systems of theology.[4]

[1] Padgett and Steve Wilkins, Christianity and Western Thought, 132. Evangelical Calvinism utilizes existentialism as a method only and not a metaphysical system. This is most clearly evident in its doctrine of the Word of God as illustrated in Partee, chapter 2, and Nigh, chapter 3, and in our knowledge of God by his self-revelation, see Grow, chapter 4, and Murphy, Chapter 6.

[2] Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 31.

[3] We are indebted to Charles Partee for this phrase

[4] See further in Partee, chapter 2, Nigh, chapter 3, and Grow, chapter 4.

Written by Bobby Grow

December 31, 2014 at 1:14 am

Against the Metaphysical Machine: Being Biblical and Avoiding ‘Systems’

barthwithglasses1

Myk Habets and I have written in our Evangelical Calvinism book for our thesis number 9, this:

Evangelical Calvinism is a form of dialectical theology.

The systematic theology of Evangelical Calvinism is dialectical in character rather than strictly philosophical or analytical. It is not content to formulate a system of theology whereby Christianity is reduced to timeless, logical truths about God. The God of biblical revelation presents us with logical problems, seeming paradoxes, surprising features which cannot simply be resolved by discursive reason. “Thus, dialectical theology is a protest against rationalistic religion in whatever form it occurs, whether the natural theology of Thomism, a theological liberalism shaped by idealist philosophy or a conservative orthodoxy that reduces theology to logically systematized propositions.”39 Padgett and Wilkins also point out that dialectical theology has two additional tendencies, “a rejection of any philosophical system as normative for theology and a substructure, either implied or explicit, informed by existentialism.”[1]

We elaborate further on this thesis, but this opening paragraph to it should suffice for the general point I want to underscore throughout the rest of this post.

This form of ‘dialectical theology’ that we follow, to one degree or another, comes, at least for me, in line with the way that George Hunsinger describes Karl Barth’s ‘anti-systemtization’ approach when it comes to his ‘method’ for doing theology. Let me quote a bit from Hunsinger on Barth, and how and why he repudiates systemitization in favor of a ‘biblical’ or ‘dialectical’ approach. Here is what Hunsinger writes of Barth:

… The idea of a divine determinism or monism posits a kind of “mechanism” and “fatalism” that Barth finds to be characteristic of “metaphysical dogmas” (IV/2, 494). Metaphysical dogmas attempt to “systematize” divine and human actions. They attempt to conceive these actions within a rationally comprehensible explanatory scheme. Within the scheme they attempt to explain how these actions are related. They appeal to a supposedly higher principle or a supposedly higher order which stands above the actions and normalizes them. Above all, they assume that God is accessible to ordinary schemes of explanation. The ontological difference in order between divine and human actions (which for Barth is ineradicable) is conceived as one that can be resolved and removed. Metaphysical dogmas, in other words, derive explanatory schemes from general observations which are then applied to the case of divine and human actions–as if the case of their relatedeness were the instance of a class. These dogmas represent the opposite of everything signified by particularism.

In Barth’s theology mechanism and monism are denied, because the possibility of explanatory systematization is denied, and the possibility of this systematization is denied, because it can achieve only a formal or technical coherence at the expense of a truly material coherence. No system can contain all the affirmations found within the cluster of basic doctrinal beliefs. At some point adherence to the system will require a material or doctrinal sacrifice. The charge of determinism or monism accurately perceives that a merely formal concept of the unconditional sovereignty of divine grace would necessarily result in the loss of human freedom. But just what conception of human freedom does the charge suppose is being lost? Is there a neutral or context-independent conception that can simply be taken for granted? Does the charge presupposes that one systematization is to be rejected (determinism or monism), because a better systematization can be found to replace it? Are Pelagianizing tendencies, for example, to be rejected with equal vigor?

The rejection of systematization has already been explored in detail. Particularism, as found in Barth’s theology, excludes systematization on principle….[2]

Hunsinger writes later of Barth on this same point:

… “God” dwindles into a “a supreme being”–“a product of our own thinking, a concept and principle and therefore an instrument with the help of which we can master and solve any problem,” including the “problem” of how divine and human actions are related (IV/2, 215)….[3]

And so for Barth, as for us Evangelical Calvinists, the unique reality, the novum or new reality that explodes into our mundane reality must be allowed to be the reality through which we attempt to think God and his relation with us (which is ‘theology’). As Thomas Torrance has written:

Our task in Christology is to yield to the obedience of our mind to what is given, which is God’s self revelation in its objective reality, Jesus Christ. A primary and basic fact which we discover here is this: that the object of our knowledge gives itself to us to be apprehended. It does that within our mundane existence, within our worldly history and all its contingency, but it does that also beyond the limits of previous experience and ordinary thought, beyond the range of what is regarded by human standards as empirically possible. Thus when we encounter God in Jesus Christ, the truth comes to us in its own authority and self-sufficiency. It comes into our experience and into the midst of our knowledge as a novum, a new reality which we cannot incorporate into the series of other objects, or simply assimilate to what we already know.[4]

It is to think God after God revealed in Jesus Christ. If we do we will be ‘dialectical’ or more simply ‘biblical’ thinkers. We will allow the ‘analogy of revelation’ to ‘rule the faith’ once for all delivered to the saints by understanding that the mystery of God in the flesh is the way that God has chosen to exegete himself for us (John 1.18) in Christ. And so we think ‘a posteriori’ from who we have before us, instead of ‘a priori’ who we have conceived of by way of our profane reflection (like through philosophy). We think scientifically and allow the subject/object in God in Christ who we have before us dictate how we are to conceive and know God through union with him by the personal work of the Holy Spirit.


[1] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 439.

[2] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 197-99.

[3] Ibid., 200.

[4] Torrance, Incarnation, 1.

Written by Bobby Grow

March 3, 2014 at 11:13 pm

An Open [Instead of Shutdown] Theology of Grace and Election Funded by God in Christ: In Response to the New Book: From Heaven He Came and Sought Her. Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective

Today I just became aware of a new book out by Crossway entitled: From Heaven He Came and Sought Her edited by David Gibson and John Gibson. Justin Taylor, Crossway’s general editor who, put this book together definite(at his level), just posted on this book at his blog here. And the book itself has a promotional website here,  where you can watch the promotional video as well. I read the Introduction to the book today, which you can do by going to amazon.com and clicking on the “Look Inside” banner tied to the book.

I was going to do a full post interacting with some things communicated in the Introduction that are pretty inconsistent with the purported thesis driving the book (i.e. like on not using a logico-deductive schemata as the lens through which their biblical exegesis is done. They claim that they don’t—in direct contrast to the claim that Thomas and James Torrance makes in regard to this kind of classical approach—but the reality is, is that towards the very end of the Intro, they in fact evidence that they do use a logico-causal scheme which clearly is dictating their exegetical conclusions. I will have to write that post some time soon.

Until I am able to write the post I just alluded to, I want to repost something I just posted on election from George Hunsinger on Karl Barth, only a couple of months ago. What this book from the Gibson&Gibson, I think, is going to do, is that it is going to presume that their approach is the only real alternative. And from this thesis, argue from there throughout. I think a more critical approach would at leas acknowledge the weightiness and alternative offered by Karl Barth and After Barth studies. What a book like this will do, is harden those already in this mode; and it will, unfortunately, draw others in who might be on the fringe, not realizing that there is an alternative way and grammar into this discussion. This repurposed post below, is my online attempt, to at least alert folks (who on the fringe) that there is an alternative to what is on tap with this new book from Gibson&Gibson. And that as biblicist as they want to appear to be, by imbibing a certain kind of nostalgia in regard to the kind of exegesis that I presumptuously assume will be present in their edited book, what they aren’t going to be alerting people to is the fact that they actually have a metaphysic and notion of causality driving their exegesis that is not simply from the “Bible.” So the question is always: are we truly going to let the tensions of scripture dictate the kind of metaphysic or post-metaphysic we are going to adopt; or are we going to smuggle a metaphysic into scripture that ends up disemboweling the text by way of imposing a logical-deductive scheme upon its disclosure? I know they assert in the Introduction that they don’t do this, but in the very Intro itself, they do (I will demonstrate this by a post in the near future).

So the following is an alternative conception to thinking about election-reprobation, and then the impact that has on thinking about the extent and impact of the atonement.

__________________________

This is an always an cantankerous subject among Christian theology and its students; the role between the objectivity of salvation accomplished by God in Jesus Christ, and the existential appropriation of that and inclusion in that (or not) by the human agent. Karl Barth offers the best way forward on this impasse (that will just not pass via classical and traditional attempts), by grounding both the objectivity and existential reality of salvation—surprise!—in the vicarious humanity of Christ. With an emphasis on the universal scope of salvation, in Christ, Barth provides a better grounding (in a theological-anthropology and a Triune-shaped doctrine of God) for accessing this variegated conundrum that just won’t seem to let go for many a Christian thinker. But I think we ought to let this go, and rest in the vicarious humanity of Christ; and rest in the dialectic kind of tension that is present if and only if we follow a God who is dialogically present, and dynamically given, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here is how George Hunsinger comments on this in the theology of Karl Barth:

The history of every human being is seen as included in that of Jesus. The history of Jesus is taken as the center which establishes, unifies, and incorporates a differentiated whole in which the history of each human being as such is included. This act of universal inclusion is his accomplishment and achievement. He enacts our salvation as a gift which is valid and efficacious for all. The validity and efficacy of this gift cannot be denied without compromising (among other things) the absolutely unconditioned and therefore gratuitous character of divine grace in him. This denial would therefore be unjustifiable within the web of Christian (or biblically derived) beliefs. The inclusion of every human being’s history in that of Jesus is therefore described according to the pattern of dialectical inclusion.  No one is excluded from the validity and efficacy of what took place for our salvation in Jesus Christ. In his history is objectively included the history of each and all.

Conversely, the history of Jesus is viewed as included in that of every human being. Although this history and what it accomplishes occur in definite sequence in time and a definite location of place, they are not encapsulated in that time and place in an unqualified way. On the contrary, they are present, in a mysterious and differentiated way, and in ways known and as yet unknown, to the history of each and every human being as such. Just as their history is enclosed in his, so is his enclosed in theirs, with all its efficacy and validity. The continual, miraculous, and mysterious presence of his history (and therefore he himself to theirs (and therefore to themselves) cannot be denied without denying (among other things) his resurrection from the dead. Therefore his denial, too, would be unjustifiable within the web of Christian beliefs. The inclusion of Jesus’ history in that of everyone else’s is therefore described according to the pattern of actualism. The once-for-all event of Jesus’ history, without ceasing to such, reiterates itself so as to be present to the history of and each and every human being. In the history of each and all, his history is objectively included. [George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 110-11. Nook]

Barth eludes the usual approach to this theological conundrum; indeed the point of entrance (a faulty presumption about the elect and reprobate) that leads to this as a theological conundrum. By seeing grace as the reality that predicates and grounds humanity, the humanity of God for us in Christ, it is impossible to deny its universal and ontological reality; if we do—as Barth would contend—then we would have to deny the mystery of God become human. It is not possible then to dissect creation, and humanity as its crown, into a sufficient and efficient mass; as if God’s grace in salvation is sufficient for all of creation, but only efficient for the particularly elect. If grace funds all of creation (as Romans 8:18ff requires), then it does. Barth allows the dialectic of Scripture to be truly dialectical in this regard; which then invites continued dialogical engagement with our Triune God. Barth’s theology of creation and grace does not shut down inquiry, but opens it up toward and from our Triune God who is full of mercy and grace.

Salvation for All, but for Some: The Universality of God’s Grace, and the Particularity of Christ’s Faith in Salvation

Okay, I don’t know how else to do this, so I am going to transcribe George Hunsinger on Karl Barth and Barth’s understanding of the dialectic between the universality of grace, and the particularity of existential faith (for individual homelesshumanpeople); and how all of this reflects a kind of tension latent within the pages of the New Testament itself. So this gets at what I am often asked in regard to how I, as an evangelical Calvinist, can sustain a view that believes in universal atonement, but not universal salvation (or Christian universalism). This quote is quite lengthy, but I want something of substance to refer my readers to; and I also want there to be enough context present so you the reader can appreciate (even if you end up disagreeing somehow!) how Barth reconceived of this ongoing problem for the classical theological approach (and I mean the debate between the classical Calvinists and Arminians). I think most people who are classical (indeed all of them) will be dissatisfied with Barth’s approach, because Barth does not give in, and thus resists the human philosophical urge to provide explanation in the kind of classical scholastic kind of rounding off way of things. Let’s get started (caveat: in the future, if anyone wants to challenge how I can maintain the universality and efficacy of saving grace [so called], and the particularity and efficacy of saving faith [so called] the only way I will engage with you around that, is if you actually read this whole post first).

Here is Hunsinger on Barth and the dialectic of the universality of grace and the particularity of faith:

. . . just as the inexplicability of the mode by which the events are related is taken as a sign that in and of itself the created order has no access to ultimate reality.

For reasons such as these, theology must content itself with description and resist the temptation to explanation. In the case of such events it must content itself with describing the mysterious facticity of the that, which facticity intrinsically excludes the possibility of explaining the corresponding how. It is in just such terms that Barth disavows the possibility of explaining the mode by which the events of grace and faith are related. The patter of this relation—its ordered and differentiated unity—can be described, but its mode defies explanation. The pattern is a conjunction of opposites and therefore of irreconcilably antithetical assertions. The unity of grace and faith occurs in such a way that grace is always universal and unconditional in its objective efficacy and validity, yet at the same time faith is always necessary and indispensable in its existential receptivity and freedom. A theology which could explain how this unity occurs as it does or how it occurs as a unity would be explaining the modus operandi of the Holy Spirit.

How gladly we would hear and know and say something more, something more precise, something more palpable concerning the way in which the work of the Holy Spirit is done! How does it really happen that the history of Jesus Christ, in which the history of all human beings is virtually enclosed and accomplished, is actualized, in the first instance only in the history of a few, of a small minority within the many of whom this cannot so far be said, but even in the history of the few typically for the history of the many? How can it really be—the question of the Virgin in Luke 1:34—that there is an actualizing of this history in other human histories? By what ways does God bring it about that in the perverted hearts, in the darkened knowledge and understanding, in the rebellious desires and strivings of sinful  human beings—for that is what even the few are—there takes place this awakening, in which they can know Jesus Christ as theirs and themselves as his? How is there really born in them the new human being who knows and recognizes and confesses Jesus Christ? How can there be in history such a thing as Christianity, and human beings who seriously want to be Christians? (IV/1, 648-49 rev., emphasis added)

It is as important and unavoidable to formulate such questions, Barth contends, as it is to leave them unanswered, except for the obviously indispensable appeal to the miraculous and mysterious mode which informs the work of the Holy Spirit as confessed by faith. “The confession credo in Spiritum Sanctum does not tell us anything concerning this How. It merely indicates the fact all this does take place, did take place and continually will take place” (IV/1, 649). Moreover, the evident reticence of the creed at this point is simply a reflection of the reticence of the New Testament itself. “Even the New Testament . . . does not really tell us anything about the How, the mode of his working” (IV/1, 649). Beyond simply describing and asserting the facticity of the Holy Spirit’s working, all questions as to its explanation are consistently repelled. To try to go beyond the New Testament at this point would obviously, Barth believes, be futile.

Barth therefore resolves to work within the terms of this inexplicability. The pattern of dialectical inclusion is used, as indicated, to describe (but not explain) how the history of each and every human being is objectively enclosed in that of Jesus. That same pattern is then used in conjunction with the pattern of actualism to describe (but not explain) how the history of Jesus is in turn objectively included in that of each and every human being. The objective moment of salvation is thereby understood as being at once fully actualized once and for all and yet not encapsulated for imprisoned within its central and definitive form of temporal occurrence. Without compromising this central and definitive form, the objective moment as such assumes secondary and derivative form by actualizing itself in relation to the history of each and every human existence. The actualization of the objective moment of salvation in this twofold form (central and derivative) is (descriptively speaking) a condition for the possibility of its subjective actualization by faith. The existential moment of salvation is thereby understood as occurring entirely within the context established by the objective moment.

The existential moment may therefore not be spoken of as making the the [sic] objective moment real or concrete, as though the objective moment were somehow unreal or abstract as such until the moment of its existential appropriation (a commonplace but ultimately blasphemous way of speaking). Nor may the existential moment be spoken of as effecting a transition from being outside to being inside the objective moment, as though the objective moment did not already include each and every human existence within itself, or as though the existential moment could somehow contribute itself to the objective moment in such a way that the objective would otherwise be deficient. Nor, finally, may the existential moment be spoken of as effecting a transition from being potentially to being actually saved, as though the objective moment were not already in itself the real, valid, and efficacious actualization of salvation for the sake of all. Each of these mistaken ways of speaking makes the event of existential appropriation less incomprehensible and mysterious, Barth believes, than it actually is in its scriptural attestation.[1]

For Barth to think about grace and efficacious faith (saving) must be done through the mystery of godliness,

By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness:

He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.[2]

There is no wiggle room for trying to construct causal concepts that are both foreign to the text of Scripture’s disclosure, and to the categories revealed in God’s Self revelation in Christ. The conditions and context is descriptively provided for in Christ, and the subsequent understandings of grace and faith therein; but, for Barth, there is no room to move beyond what ends up being a resounding tension between these two ontic and salvific realities; the tension is preserved by the christological tension present, itself, in the hypostatic union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ. We are left in a spot where we can engage in description, and attend to the implications of that as we can; but we have no warranted allowance to move beyond, in order to satisfy our sense of manageability and control in these matters.

As you read this accounting of Barth from Hunsinger, what should have stood out to you most prominently is the role that the vicarious humanity of Christ plays in this. Salvation is objective, actual, efficacious, and realized in Christ for us and with us, in his vicarious humanity. All that needed to be accomplished for salvation for the world (Jn. 3.16) and humanity, has already taken place in the humanity of Christ for all of us. If we want to posit, like classical Calvinism & Arminianism does, that salvation is only real and efficacious when the elect humanity (of individual people, in this account of things) appropriates salvation by faith, then we have just predicated the actualization and realization of salvation upon certain human beings instead of God (even though these human beings were unconditionally elected by God). But I hope you can see the problem with this. It abstracts God’s salvific work from his person in Christ, and makes an aspect of it contingent upon creation and human reception (even if it has been vouchsafed by an artificial, but necessary for this system, positing of an absolute decree of election and reprobation by God). This is a problem for various reasons, which we will have to tease out at a later date (but hopefully you can see how this is a problem on your own).

Blessings.


[1] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 113-14 [nook edition].

[2] I Timothy 3:16, NASB, Updated.

Theo-logic and Scripture’s Teaching in Dialectic

What is theo-logic? And how does dialectic and the teaching of Scripture relate to theo-logic as a regulative mechanism? Now there are a couple of questions that I am sure you have been pondering lately (ha!).

dialecticalbarthThe way I understand theo-logic is that it is what we end up with when we follow the inner-logical trajectory provided by whatever theological topic we are considering, and endeavoring to follow through, as it gives itself and imposes itself upon us through the inner integrity of its own reality. So for example; the so called homoousion is the result of theo-logic. That Jesus the eternal Son of God is consubstantial with the Father [and the Holy Spirit], of the same substance, leads to certain and subsequent theo-logical conclusions. One might be that humanity itself is implicated and grounded to be what it is by the grace of God exemplified by the hypostatic union of his divine being with human being in the singular person, Jesus the Christ. And as such, any attempt to develop a purported theological anthropology must then work from this theo-logic and its implicates. So “our” humanity cannot be thought of as an abstract from Christ’s vicarious humanity for us; instead, we must think our humanity into and from His — and thus what is true by His humanity by nature, becomes true of ours by the recreative work of the Holy Spirit; our lives can only echo what is given in and through his humanity —God’s humanity— for us (pro nobis). So, this represents a theo-logic.

But what happens if a theo-logic gets delimited by the teaching of Scripture? What happens if Scripture seems to contradict what we deem as the required theo-logic; then what gives? For example, another example might be that God is love, and thus some construal of the theo-logic here (like by P.T. Forsyth or J. A. T. Robinson et al) would require that this then must finally mean, that in some sense, Love Wins!, and all people will indeed and actually be reconciled, salvifically, to God. But what if Scripture states over and over again, that people will inevitably and eternally end up in a place known as hell? What is going to give at this point? Do we interpret the Scripture on this in light of the theo-logic and our construal of that, that God is love; or do we just follow the prima facie and purportedly straightforward reading and teaching of Scripture and Jesus that some people (most) will end up in eternal conscious torment?

These are not easy waters to navigate. I have not. But this is why I take a dialectic approach, in a dialogical form. I am not simply appealing to mystery, but instead am willing to hold certain things as both true, and not necessarily trying to scholastically bring it all together. That said, I usually privilege the teaching of Scripture (if it is on sound exegetical bases, per my perception) as the delimiter, and I often will defer the trad of the church in particular cases.

Just thinking out loud. Thanks.

Written by Bobby Grow

October 12, 2013 at 4:50 pm