Doctrine of God

Is God Really Love? How an Orthodox Understanding of God can Set Us Free From a God of Self-Projection

John writes of God:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.[1]

God is love. Growing up in, and still inhabiting, in many ways, the evangelical sub-culture in North America this pious idea of God is love is floated around almost ubiquitously. I remember years ago while attending a particularly large and popular evangelical church in Southern California, this well known pastor said “God will become whatever you need him to be.” I needed God to be all types of things for me back then; I needed emotional stability and spiritual foundation. But maybe you can already see where I am going with this, maybe you can see the theological problem associated with thinking of God under these constraints.

Is it really true that God is love? Yes. Is it true that God will become whatever we need him to be as the body of Christ? What happens if we couple the Johannine idea that God is love together with this idea that God will become whatever we need him to be? To help us answer these questions, and I want to keep this as un-technical as possible (so don’t be scared by this quote, keep moving on), I thought I would bring up 19th century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. The following quote comes from a brief summary of Feuerbach’s critique of the Christian approach to God and this within the context of Karl Barth’s engagement with it. But the point I want to highlight by this quote is simply the critique that Feuerbach made of the Christian’s projection of a God-concept.

His primary avenue for accomplishing this goal lay in his assertion that “God” is nothing more than a projection of humanity’s essential ideals as distilled from embodied existence. God is, in Barth’s paraphrase, the “religious feeling’s mirrored self” (522). Feuerbach positions himself firmly against any thought system that introduces an unnecessary abstraction from the totality of sensory experience in which the only real distinction is the encounter between the objective I and the otherness of the Thou. “Truth, reality, the world of the senses, and humanity are identical concepts” (521) according to Feuerbach and, in the last analysis, “divinity” is just another item in the equivalency series. Thus, “the beginning, the middle, and the end of religion is Man” [#1] his own and his god’s alpha and omega.[2]

We don’t want to give Feuerbach too much shrift, but along with Barth I think we should actually appreciate Feuerbach’s critique of the pietistic conception of God; at least to an extent. I believe that his critique is apropos to what I was describing above; this concept of God that really is contingent upon what we need him to become for us. We end up constructing a God to meet our perceived needs, and thus projecting an uber-concept greater than ourselves who we believe is the living God who can meet all of my emotional and other needs in just the way I might think they need to be met; typically meaning that we will feel a certain way, or have an experience of God that we deem worthy of the God we worship.

What is prompting this post, really, was that I was listening to a local Christian music radio station, and they were interviewing the lead singer of one of the groups they play on their station. He was sharing some personal stuff he was dealing with in regard to doubt about God’s love and presence in his life. He said that he was in a dark place with that when he wrote his song, but that in the midst of that God’s light began to break through the darkness and he began to have an experience of God that began to assuage his feelings of darkness and angst. What I sensed though, as I listened to him, was this type of pietistic mood and conception of God, like the one I’ve been describing above. The idea that God becomes what we need him to be, and typically that is resident within a particular experience or feeling; of the kind that a song could capture.

I too, years ago, and for many years in my life, experienced deep angst, anxiety, and depression; I struggled deeply with doubt of God’s existence, and doubt of reality itself. The only way I could describe that season was that it was hell. The kind of God I was being pointed to in that season, and because of my evangelical context, was the kind that this singer above seems to be thinking from; this God who will become whoever I needed him to be. But this, in the end, never really helped me; in fact I would say it prolonged the dark season of my soul by placing all of the weight and onus on me to construct a God, to muster a feeling, wherein I finally felt like the ‘light was breaking through the darkness’ and I was having a real experience with the real God; the God who indeed is love.

The concept of God that Feuerbach was primarily critiquing in his historical period would be something like Friedrich Schleiermacher’s concept of God; a God known primarily by a ‘turn to the subject’. A God who was more contingent upon how I ‘felt’ about God, or we felt about God as the community of Christ, rather than believing that we could actually be confronted by God by way of direct encounter with him as revealed in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. While the relationship between the evangelical concept of God and Schleiermacher’s concept of God might only have tenuous linkage, I believe there is enough to make my particular point stick. In other words, whether Schleiermacher or a Western evangelical, we all have the propensity to construct gods of our own making by way of self-projection; in other words, in line with a Calvinian theme, we are all idol-manufacturing people who bend that way over and again, and constantly. If we find ourselves within a community of faith wherein we are fed theology that reinforces that bent, that’s the direction we will turn. And then we fall prey to Feuerbach’s critique; we are simply worshiping a God of our own making and projection.

Contrariwise, the reality is that the living God is, of course, not of our own making; he’s not a projection of us. Indeed, the living God has spoken in Christ; he has revealed himself over the long period of salvation-history as mediated through Jesus Christ. What finally “cured” me, and this was significant towards bringing me out of my long long season of doubt and anxiety, was to be confronted with the fact that God isn’t who we need him to become. All of that presupposes that we actually know who we need him to become for us; that we can search our own hearts and minds at the depths that only he can. When I realized that God is not who we need him to become it began to liberate me. I was able to come out of myself, and realize that the life I needed was found ecstatically; he was God in Jesus Christ. I didn’t need to engage in self-psychology anymore, I could simply begin the life giving process of doing doxological/worshipful theology and constant meditation upon who the actual living and true God is. I.e. The God who broke into my sinful human nature, and recreated it in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I could begin living out of the new creation and first fruits that Jesus was and is for me, as the new creation of God in his humanity for me.

The irony of the ‘God becomes who I need him to be’ approach is that it not only dehumanizes us (by putting us in the position of God), but it dedivinizes God (by reducing him to a human projection). Coming to know God more accurately, or rightly, more orthodoxly meant for me a way of escape; it indeed did bring God’s genuine light into the serious darkness of my soul. I was set free indeed. My hope is that I can help other people experience this same freedom by introducing them to God who is indeed love, but who defines what that means for himself.

[1] I John 4:7-10, NASB.

[2] Daryl, “And Was Made Man”: The Witness of Feuerbach’s Anti-Theology, Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007), accessed 05-29-2017.

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No God Behind the Back of Jesus: God is Love not an UnMoved Mover

I don’t know about you, but as a North American evangelical, growing up, I was taught and given the impression, theologically, that God is somewhat performance driven; i.e. that he is concerned with me keeping his law in order for me to maintain fellowship with him (a quid pro quo type of relationship). Don’t get me wrong, it was never quite this explicit, in fact just the opposite might have been what was on the surface; i.e. that ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.’ But underneath the pietism that the Sunday school song captures remained a God who was shaped goodshepherdby his relation to me and the world by us (humanity) keeping a rigid performance shaped spirituality. Even if I was told that God was love, and even if those telling me that he is love were genuine, there still, even at a tacit level, remained a detachment or rupture between what they were saying and the theology they, and then I had available to fall back on; in other words there was a fissure between the pietism, and the actual theology behind said pietism. If I am not being cryptic enough what I am referring to is the classically Reformed theology that funded, ostensibly, the piety I lived under as a child and young adult; bearing in mind that my background was just a basic baptistic “biblicist” Free church mode of being.

An antidote to all of this came for me in seminary, particularly through my professor, Ron Frost’s instruction; he introduced me to Trinitarian theology (at that time it was presented to me through Colin Gunton’s work). Since, then, of course, as many of you know, Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth have become my teachers in regard to informing the way I think about God as Triune love and what that means for my development as a Christian person. I thought I would share a lengthy quote from Thomas Torrance that illustrates the type of teaching I’ve been sitting under for the last eleven years. Here Torrance explicates what it means for God to be love:

… Just as we can never go behind God’s saving and revealing acts in Jesus Christ and in the mission of his Spirit, so we can never think or speak of him truly apart from his revealing and saving acts behind the back of Jesus Christ, for there is no other God.

It is of course because God actively loves us, and actually loves us so much that he has given us his only Son to be the Saviour of the world, that he reveals himself to us as the Loving One, and as he whose Love belongs to his innermost Being as God. If he were not Love in his innermost Being, his love toward us in Christ and the Holy Spirit would be ontologically groundless. God is who he is as he who loves us with his very Being, he whose loving is as inexhaustible as his infinite Being for his Love is his Being in ceaseless triune movement and activity. It is precisely as this living, loving, and acting God that he has come to us in Jesus Christ and unites us to himself by his one Spirit, interacting with us in creation and history, and in our human and physical existence in time and space, all in order to be our God and to have us for his people.

It is thus that we understand why Christians believe the God and Father of Jesus Christ to be the one and only God and Saviour of the world. He is not different in himself from what he is in the activity of his saving and redeeming love in the singularity of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the God who is loving and saving us has once for all given his very Self to us in his Son and in his Spirit, and who in giving himself freely and unreservedly to us gives us with him all things. It is in the Cross of Christ that the utterly astonishing nature of the Love that God is has been fully disclosed, for in refusing to spare his own Son whom he delivered up for us all, God has revealed that he loves us more than he loves himself. And so it is in the Cross of Jesus Christ above all that God has both exhibited the very Nature of his Being as Love and has irrevocably committed his Being to relationship with us in unconditional Love. In Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit we know no other God, and believe that there is no other God for us than this God, who freely seeks and creates fellowship with us, utterly undeserving sinners though we are.[1]

There are no decrees, no artificial covenants (of works/redemption/grace), or stipulations in regard to how we can relate to a God like this, or who we are relating to. It is all contingent upon who he is in his triune life, and how that shapes his uncomplicated but ineffable relationship to us through his election and free choice to not be God without us, but with us, Immanuel. This is the God, the One revealed and explicated in Jesus Christ, that the piety I grew up with has been in search of; it is not the God, in my evangelical Calvinist view, who we get through Aristotelian, Thomistic, and scholastic decrees and covenants—the God who hides behind the back of a pretty soft face of Jesus.

It is unfortunate to see a whole new crop of young evangelical theologians drinking deeply from the well of scholasticism Reformed theology, and the God provided for in that schema. It is not the God simply revealed in Jesus Christ, and thought of from there. Instead the God of the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox, the God evangelical theologians are pressing into currently, is a God conceived of through philosophical speculation and appeal to the analogia entis; a God conceived of in abstraction, and then fitted to the God revealed in Christ.

If we cannot simply look at Jesus as the fullest explication and exegesis of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit then I would highly suggest that we not talk too much about any other conception of God. This is a serious matter, which I realize the other “side” would agree to. Unfortunately for some vested reason they can’t seem to accept the fact that the classical theism they have embraced unnecessarily layers a conception of God with the dregs of philosophical projection that muddles the face of God in Jesus Christ to un-recognition. Yes, you might end up with a sense of apophatic transcendence, in regard to the philosophically conceived God, but that sense of transcendence, so conceived, really, ironically, is more of a psychological sense of ‘feeling’ God which is generated by the self, more than a real sense of God’s transcendence as that is given in his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ unmitigated. Torrance speaks of this unmitigated God, I wish the evangelicals would swarm towards his approach to things rather than to what they have been now for these past many years.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 4-5.

TF Torrance on Human Sexuality: Gender Dysphoria and its Relationship to God

We are a fractured people, the current state of sexuality and gender ideology illustrates this fracturous state. As Christians we have insight on why this is so, that the ‘world’ or secular perspectives do not have access to (or at least they reject their access to it). There is a confusion about what it means to be male and female; the confusion, I submit, comes from a deeply grounded interruption between the ground of being and what it means to be a gendered human coram Deo (‘before God’). This confusion is given all types of expression, whether of the heterosexual, homosexual, or trinitysketchtranssexual form (among other expressions). As is the case for all of reality there is a theological reason that provides explanatory power for our current state; power that has the capacity to break into the confusion and bring clarity. Thomas Torrance describes the source of this sexual confusion this way:

We begin by going right back to Genesis to examine its theological account of the divine purpose of creation and redemption. God made man, male and female, and placed man in a perfect environment. As man and woman they are made to have fellowship with God, and in themselves they are essentially social beings, in harmony with God, and in harmony with their environment. It is as male and female, in the unity of man, that they are made in communion with God, and as male and female, one man, they reflect the glory of God. Man is in the image of God.

Then we discover that the bond of fellowship between God and man is broken by rebellion and sin. It belongs to the nature of sin to divide, to create disorder, to disrupt, to destroy fellowship. What are the consequences of sin? Not only is the bond of communion between God and man broken, issuing in man’s guilty fear of God, but the bond between man and woman is impaired: guilt and shame come in between them, and even the symbol of wearing clothes is interpreted in terms of the hiddenness of man from woman and of woman from man. The man-woman relationship is involved in the broken relation with God. With the bond between them broken, man and woman are individualised, and each is turned in upon himself or herself. But even the unity of man as male, and the unity of woman as female, within the individual heart is disrupted, in the knowledge of good and evil. Each knows that he or she is no longer what he or she ought to be.

Thus the rupture in the relation between God and man, and man and woman, entails a rupture within each between what a person is and the person ought to be. Once the constitutive bond between God and man is broken, every other relation suffers irreparable damage. And so we find the relation between man and the environment broken. Adam and Eve are thrust out of the garden of Eden, and the way back to utopia  is barred by divine judgement. Moreover, man now exists in a state of tension with nature. Man must earn his living by the sweat of his brow among thorns and thistles, and woman has pain in childbirth. Mankind is out of gear with nature, and anxiety characterises their life. But the consequences of broken fellowship with God extend deep into human life and keep spreading. The first brothers fall out with each other, and one slays the other. And so the story of the theological narrative goes on. It is a double story. On one side it is the story of the atomisation of mankind, for the internal rupture results in individualisation and conflict. On the other it is the story of human attempts at re-socialisation, great attempts to mend the broken relations, to heal the internal rupture, to bind divided humanity together again, as at Babel. But all the attempts to heal man partake of our fallen nature and cannot but give new orientation in sin to the broken relationship with God, so that all attempts break themselves on the divine judgement and result in further disintegration. Mankind is unable to re-socialise itself, unable to heal its internal rupture for that which really makes man man is the bond between man and God.[1]

Human sexuality, as TF Torrance rightly understands, is part and parcel with what it means to be created in the imago Dei (‘image of God’). Once that relationship was marred and thrown into disrepute in Adam’s and Eve’s choice to choose their way instead of God’s the fallout of that has become irreversible (lest God become human in Christ).

Realistically what this means is that the gender dysphoria we are seeing unfold in the 21st century is only going to get worse, it will never get better. Yes, there will be individual people who are currently arrested by the current state of gender and sexuality dysfunction, who will experience reversal of all of this in their lives personally as they come to Christ. But the ‘secular’ the profane world we inhabit in this in-between time will only continue its downward spiral into the chaos created by the rupture introduced between the bond of God and humanity in the fall. Yes, there’s hope, and as Christians we are supposed to be spreading that hope as we bear witness to the great reversal of Christ in our own lives; as we bear witness to the eschatological reality of Christ come and coming again.

Let me also submit that the current acquiescence of some Christians to gender dysphoria and the confusion surrounding human sexuality does no one any good. God in Christ has come to re-create indeed, but according to a taxis or order that he has decided to be coordinate with his purposes not ours. So, I think, part of what it means to point people to Christ is to point them to the new creation; a creation that is corollary with the original creation but far surpasses it in its telos in and for Christ. It’s a new-creation and kingdom wherein all its component parts work within the perfectly calibrated and egalitarian way God has always intended. There’s no false binary between the sexes in this new-creation but a new way for twoness to be oriented by the threeness and oneness God.[2]

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 38-9.

[2] See Sarah Coakely, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

In The Hands of a Loving God: A Riff on The Babylon Bee’s Angry Calvinist God

The Christian satire site, The Babylon Bee, recently shared this about Calvinists:

BOISE, ID—Local Calvinist Evan Rollins loudly announced Sunday afternoon his increased level of discomfort and wariness with Pastor Frank after the minister preached a passionate sermon angrygodon the love of God, witnesses confirmed Wednesday.

According to Rollins, he first began to feel uncomfortable with the message when the pastor quoted John 3:16 and pleaded with his hearers to believe the gospel, with his doubts and fears seemingly being confirmed as Pastor Frank reminded his audience that “God is love.”

 “I’m just not sure about Pastor Frank anymore, with all the love and grace talk,” Rollins told a friend at a local microbrewery after service. “I’m not saying he’s a heretic—or worse, an Arminian—but just that we should have our guard up from here on out. I’m seeing a lot of red flags.”

“Did you catch that bit about God’s love reaching to the heavens? Wow,” he added.

At publishing time, Rollins had begun searching for another church “where we’re really exhorted to rest in God’s wrath and judgment from the pulpit.”[1]

The irony of this, and why it’s satirical, is because there’s some relative truth to this. In a general sense classical Calvinists have emphasized God’s relationship to His creatures through a legal/juridic framework of mediating decrees (think of the theology that undergirds the Covenant of Works/Grace).

I once tried to distinguish evangelical Calvinism from classical Calvinism at another blog I once had (i.e. The Evangelical Calvinist in Plain Language). I don’t think Evan Rollins would like us too much either. Here’s what I wrote (I was trying to make it is as simplistic as I possibly could):

The way, when in person with someone, that I have tried to describe what evangelical Calvinism is, is to contrast it with what most people think of Calvinism today (as represented by The Gospel Coalition, or more explicitly by the acronym TULIP or 5 point Calvinism). So that is the way I will engage to flesh that out with you as well.

In general evangelical Calvinism emphasizes and starts from the idea that God is love! We know this to be the case because He has revealed that to us in and through His Son, Jesus. One of my (still) favorite Bible verses is:

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16

Or,

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” I John 4:7-12

So we know that God is a personal God who does what He does because of who He is, He is love. And we, as evangelical Calvinists, use this belief to shape everything else that we articulate in regard to how we think of the way that God relates to us.

This means that we do not think that God primarily relates to us through Law, or us keeping the Law (which is the basic underlying premises upon which 5 point Calvinism is based on); we believe that God has always related to us, first, because He simply loves us (because that is who He is). And within that relationship He has provided expectations that He knew we couldn’t even uphold; so because He is love, He did that for us too, through Christ (Christ thus has become the end of the Law for all who believe Romans 9:5).

I would submit that the imagery and reality of marriage is the better way to think of our relationship to God in Christ (that’s what the Apostle Paul thought in Ephesians 5, and this is a common theme throughout all of Scripture, especially in Revelation). We don’t relate, humanly speaking, to our spouses through a set of codes and laws (even though there are expectations within the relationship); no, ideally, our relationship is based upon love (or self-giveness for the other). I think this is the better metaphor (and reality/our union with Christ) to think of our relationship with God through. Richard Sibbes, a Puritan thought so, as did Martin Luther.

So in general, then, evangelical Calvinism holds that God is Love and thus dynamic and personal. This is in contrast to Classical Calvinism’s and Arminianism’s belief that God relates to us through impersonal decrees and laws.

[1] The Babylon Bee

The “Trinitarian Revival,” and Does Jesus Come After or Before the Oneness of God?

trinityjesus

Katherine Sonderegger identifies Karl Rahner and Karl Barth, respectively, as the seminal heads who initiated what has been called the Trinitarian Revival. She writes:

The “Trinitarian Revival” has been traced to twin geniuses: Karl Rahner and Karl Barth. Rahner’s remarkable essay for his encyclopedia, Mysterium Salutis, now published separately as The Trinity. Joseph Donceel, trans. New York: Herder, 1970. (New York: Crossroad, 2003) provides the template for considering much Christian piety as “sheer monotheism”—see p. 42, note 43. Karl Barth announced the Trinity as a form of revelation in his Church Dogmatics, I.1, thereby joining the modern doctrine of revelation to the Triune God as proper and sole Subject of dogmatics. Because of the Christological concentration of these doctrines of the Trinity, they remain distinctly modern, belonging to the pronounced Christological focus of modern theology, and not simply as variants on Peter Lombard’s Sentences and early Trinitarianism in the doctrine of God.[1]

Ultimately Sonderegger does not think this style of “revival” has been a good thing; the above quote is a footnote she wrote tied to commentary she was offering on the impact that modern theology, a la Barth et al., has had upon the shape of Trinitarian theology. She sees the emphasis upon the threeness of God (de Deo trino), promoted by Barth, Rahner, et al., as something that has had a negative impact upon understanding God as One (de Deo uno). Sonderegger writes:

Once more we must pause before a seemingly anodyne, wholly biblical phrase: the One God. Perhaps nothing so marks out the modern in systematic theology as the aversion to the scholastic treatise, De Deo Uno. It belongs not to the preface but rather the body of the dogmatic work to lay out the broad movement in present day dogmatics that has pressed the treatise De Deo Trino to the fore; indeed, it crowds out and supplants the exposition of the One God. But even here we must say that the doctrine of the Trinity, however central to the Christian mystery, must not be allowed to replace or silence the Oneness of God. God is supremely, gloriously One; surpassingly, uniquely One. Nothing is more fundamental to the Reality of God that [sic] this utter Unicity. Such is God’s Nature; such His Person: One. Oneness governs the Divine Perfections: all in the doctrine of God must serve, set forth, and conform to the transcendent Unity of God. Now, to say all this aligns the Christian doctrine of God with the faiths of Abraham, Judaism, and Islam; indeed of all monotheisms—for monotheism is not a shame word! The Christian affirmation of divine Unicity opens it, like the merciful and welcoming Lord it serves, to the peoples and faiths of the good earth. But this cannot serve as ground for such a fundamental axiom in dogmatics. Rather, we must appeal to Holy Scripture.[2]

She clearly has a problem with the modern turn in what has now come to be called Trinitarian theology (ironically because of the modern turn). It appears, though, that she is over-correcting by so emphasizing the Oneness of God that she already is starting to lose sight of how the Oneness is oneness by almost denigrating the Threeness of God; which would be ironic because ever since at least the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople the threeness and oneness of God have been inextricably linked within the Christian grammar.

But as we recall in the footnote I shared from her, she does mention Peter Lombard’s Sentences. This might clue us into the turn-back she is attempting to make, and how she thinks a doctrine of God should develop. It says much about her theory of revelation; she’s obviously not a Barthian (or potentially not even an Athanasian). Like Lombard she is going to want to follow the progressive unfolding of Scripture in salvation history. As such she opens to the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and works her way, in a seemingly linear fashion, from there until she gets to Jesus. Once she gets to Jesus in the New Testament she will start reflecting on the threeness of God. Sonderegger is actually following not only Lombard’s lead, but the lead found in the scholastic developments of theology embedded in Post Reformed orthodoxy.

I once wrote about how the scholastics Reformed placed a rupture between the Oneness of God and the Threeness. Here’s what I wrote as I had just finished comparing how a doctrine of God is developed in various Reformed confessions, and a chatechism:

At first blush there might not be much apparent difference between TheWestminster Confession of Faith (WCF), The Belgic Confession of the Faith (BC), The Heidelberg Catechism (HC) and The Scott’s Confession 1560 (SC); but this requires further reflection. The “Westminster” tradition starts talking about God by highlighting his “attributes,” these are characteristics that are contrasted with what humans are not (analogia entis). We finally make it to God as “Father, Son, Holy Spirit,” but not before we have qualified him through “our” categories using humanity and nature (analogia entis) as our mode of thinking about “godness.” This is true for both the WCF and the BC. Jan Rohls provides a helpful insight on this when he speaks to the nature of the composition of many of the Reformed Confessions (including both the WCF and the BC):

It is characteristic of most of the confessional writings that they begin with a general doctrine of God’s essence and properties, and only then proceed to the doctrine of the Trinity. The two pieces “On the One God” (De deo uno) and “On the Triune God” (De deo trino) are thus separated from each other. . . .[3]

We now see this move being made in Sonderegger’s work. It’s not a new thing then, but a call back to the calmer waters, as Sonderegger might see it, of classical theism; and away from the turbulent seas that modern theology has presented the church with.

Should we be afraid of speaking of God’s Oneness and Threeness in the same breath? Was the ancient church afraid of doing so? I don’t think so. Thomas Torrance, who I also once quoted has this to say about this type of move by Sonderegger:

. . . in the Scots Confession as in John Knox’s Genevan Liturgy, the doctrine of the Trinity is not added on to a prior conception of God—there is no other content but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There was no separation here between the doctrine of the One God (De Deo Uno), and the doctrine of the triune God (De Deo Trino), which had become Roman orthodoxy through the definitive formalisation of Thomas Aquinas. This trinitarian approach was in line with The Little Catechism which Knox brought back from Geneva for the instruction of children in the Kirk. “I believe in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Son and in the Holy Spirit, and look for salvation by no other means.” Within this trinitarian frame the centre of focus in the Confession and Catechism alike is upon Jesus Christ himself, for it is only through him and the Gospel he proclaimed that God’s triune reality is made known, but attention is also given to the Holy Spirit. Here once again we have a different starting point from other Reformation Confessions. Whereas they have a believing anthropocentric starting point, such as in the Heidelberg Catechism, this is quite strongly theocentric and trinitarian. Even in Calvin’s Institute, which follows the fourfold pattern in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the doctrine of the Trinity is given in the thirteenth chapter within the section on the doctrine of God the Creator. Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, however, understandably followed the order of the Apostles’ Creed. The trinitarian teaching in the Scots Confession was by no means limited to the first article for it is found throughout woven into the doctrinal content of subsequent articles.[4]

Sonderegger would most likely respond that Torrance is simply a modern theologian himself; following in the steps of Barth and Rahner working out the so called “Trinitarian Revival.” But I think she’s wrong. I think Torrance’s insight, as well as the facts on the ground, blunts her critique of the modern trajectory within Trinitarian theology. Sure, yes, modern theology has flavored Trinitarian theology a certain way (i.e. in almost anti-metaphysical ways, which is what I think Sonderegger is really troubled by), but I don’t think the allergy of speaking of God’s Oneness and Threeness together is as present say in Pro-Nicene theology as she seems to want to make it.

I’ll leave you to decide …

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology. Volume 1 Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), xxiii, n. 4.

[2] Ibid., xiv.

[3] Bobby Grow, “Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either Through Christ or Through Nature,”  in eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 108.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology cited Ibid., 110.

The Mystery of Godliness in Flesh: Engaging with K Sonderegger’s “Immutable-Mutability” in the Hypostatic Union

Katherine Sonderegger’s recently released (2015) Systematic Theology. Volume 1, The Doctrine of God is a theology text that is textured and dripping with doxological prose towards a God who you sense is truly holy as you work your way through it. She is someone I would say who writes in the same type of reverent style as John Webster did in his writings; with a kind of poetic and sacred flare.

jesusblackFor the rest of this post I wanted to share with you some of Sonderegger’s thinking on the immutability of God, or what she calls “Immutable mutability.” Here she has just been working through the Old Testament book of Numbers, and offers her thoughts on how God is both immutable and mutable (in a qualified way), using the themes of God’s stooping down to meet His covenant people where they are. She reifies the Torah revelation of God, the tabernacling God, by bringing Christ as the substance of that reality into the cultic picture offered by the salvation-history disclosed for us in Numbers. You will notice as you read this quote from her that she brings prayer or intercession into this discussion, just briefly, as she has previously been discussing that within the context of Numbers and God’s immutability. You will also notice that she refers to “omni” theology, i.e. God’s “all-knowingness,” and God’s “all-powerfulness,” so on and so forth. These are surely classical grammarisms for referring to the Christian God, but ones, that I think there might be better language for; at the very least, just as the language of immutability should be, I think so should the language of the “omnis” be qualified and conditioned from within a Christ concentrated frame of God’s Self-explication.

Furthermore, what you will also see in Sonderegger’s following quote is a reference to Barth. Sonderegger, ultimately, is not a fan of Barth’s Christ concentrated or principial approach for doing theology; indeed, as you read the whole of her Systematic Theology she makes that clear. That said, as is illustrated even here, she does make constructive appeal to Barth here and there (when she is not critiquing his Trinitarian approach to a doctrine of God). If you are familiar with Barth studies you will also see that she defers to a more Bruce McCormack reading of Barth wherein the Logos asarkos is essentially nullified. Of course as George Hunsinger and Paul Molnar are only too ready to argue, it is not the case that Barth has this allergy to the Logos asarkos lurking in his theology, or in particular, in his touchstone doctrine of election. Even so, Sonderegger, as you will see, works constructively with her reading of Barth and attempts to somewhat synthesize (that might be too strong of a word), constructively, her understanding of God’s “immutable-mutability” in the Incarnation with Barth’s concentration on the Logos ensarkos. These are technical things, in regard to Barth, that are indeed important, but for the purposes of this post, don’t let that deter you from being enriched from what Sonderegger offers here. As you read this your appetite might be whetted, as mine is, for her volume 2 which is focusing on Christology. What you will read is a rare flourish into some Christological thematic; for the most part in this volume 1 of hers she avoids much if any discussion of Christology (which that in and of itself should tell you volumes about how she differs from Barth — Barth wouldn’t even attempt to develop a doctrine of God without first starting with Jesus Christ — Sonderegger believes Barth is in serious error here, of course I disagree with her!). Here is Sonderegger:

In the mystery of the Incarnation, creaturely time is bent. It is taken up into the eternal, even as our flesh is taken up into Deity. What takes place under Caesar Augustus, in a shed in David’s city, takes place in another sense, yet altogether really, in the wilderness beyond the Jordan. Just this is what we mean when we say that time and eternity have met in Christ. Time and its order, its direction and impulse, are not destroyed—precisely not that! No, the movement from death to life, from exile to return, cannot be shaken: it is the Lord’s promise to His creatures. But our time is taken up into His, and in that way, receives as communicated, the Eternity that is God.

Our intercessions and commerce with the Lord God take place in that bent and hallowed time. The Mutability that is also the Lord’s Power is the Incarnation as it exists—“preexists”—in eternity. We want to be precise here. We do not purpose that the Divine Son is mutability within the Godhead, nor a “readiness” for Incarnation among the Triune Persons. No! This is a rather rarified form of Arianism, but Arianism, all the same. What we hear in the book of Numbers, rather, and aim to set out here, is the conviction that God’s very Nature, His own fiery Omnipotence, is “disposed” to Incarnation, the entire Godhead. Perfect Power is Humility in jus this sense. The fiery Dynamism that just is Omnipotence is Life, Movement, Energy. It eternally consists in and anticipates the Incarnation through its Divine Mutability. Just this is spiritual Nature. Though we must take up this task more directly in Divine Omniscience, even here we must say that the act of Incarnation is no novelty in God, no decision to be realized or adopted, no remedy. Rather this Mutability is the Divine Power in its dynamic Life. It is Eternal: immutable Mutability. This is what Barth means, I believe, when says that Christ makes us His contemporaries: we are drawn, as by the good Teacher, to His time, the eternal temporality. Perhaps this gives us another avenue into the perplexing doctrine of the Logos Ensarkos, beloved by Barth. Even as the apostle tells us that the Mind of Christ is exemplified and enacted by the lowering of Christ into the form of a slave, so the Humility of the Lord God is exemplified and enacted in His lowly readiness to hear, to bend down to His creatures in the dust, to have real commerce with those who are perishing. He will do this. It is not too little a thing for Him to take the form of a slave, to attend to us, to turn His Face toward us. That is His Goodness, His astonishing Humility. He asks, in that merciful exchange, What will you have me do for you? For just this reason the Incarnate Christ ask this very thing of the supplicants who come His way. He hears. He communicates His own Life to us in prayer, His own Vitality and Blessing. And as we cannot say, from our exiled home, east of Eden, just how the Eternal Word could become and live and die as one of us; just so we cannot say, as creatures of the earth, how the Eternal can assume our time, our days and years, into His Presence, so that we may speak and He may hear. But with the full realism that is the Incarnation, we may affirm, Yes, the Lord God, the omnipotent One, is mutable in just this way.[1]

What stands out to me most about this is the strong appeal to mystery that Sonderegger relies on in her constructive offering relative to how she tries to frame God’s “immutable-mutability” embodied by and within the hypostatic union of God and humanity in the singular person of Jesus Christ. This appeal to mystery, as J.N.D. Kelly reminds us is very patristic, and sounds somewhat like what Leo famously summarized in his Tome, which helped lead to the Chalcedonian settlement (we will have to explore how Leo brought all of this to summary in the next post).

I realize this has been somewhat of a fragmented post, but it is a blog post after all. Hopefully at the very least you’ve been given something to think about as a result of reading Sonderegger’s thoughts. Like I noted, I don’t fully endorse her approach, but her thinking on things is worth engaging with and being edified by at some level.

 

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology. Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 297-99.

How Greek Thought Patterns Have Contributed to EFS, and the Eternal Functional Subordination of the Son to the Father

It has already been a few months since the whole online Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) debate broke out; the one where theologians like Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, et al. argue that the Son is eternally in obedient submission to the Father. They make their argument, they claim, from biblical exegesis, and passages found in epistles like Ephesians, where obedient submission, they
russianGodargue, is not only the model between wives to husbands, but on this analogy, between the Son and the Father. Essentially they end up reading creaturely social analogies back into the immanent eternally Triune life of God. It is this type of theo-logic, though, that was condemned in the Pro-Nicene theology of the ecumenical church; particularly at the councils of Nicaea-Constantinople.

Thomas Torrance develops for us the theological problems that are associated with the ancient church heresies that are now presently plaguing teachings like those found in EFS. In what follows, Torrance is discussing the impact that dualistic Hellenistic thought patterns  have had upon Western-thought-forms; namely the precedence that classical thought has given to the optical mode of thinking and verification (so the obsession with empericism, etc.). TFT is highlighting the impact that this methodology and epistemology can have upon our construal of God’s “Father-hood” and “Son-hood,” and how Christian/Patrisitic theology, primarily through Athanasius’ influence, eschewed this “Hellenising” effect by reifying it through Christian ontology.

The contrast between Christianity and Hellenism could hardly be greater than at this fundamental level, where biblical patterns of thought governed by the Word of God and the obedient hearing of faith (υπακοη της πιτεως) conflict sharply with those of Greek religion and philosophy. The issue came to its head in the Arian controversy over the Father – Son relation at the heart of the Christian Gospel. Are the terms ‘father’ and ‘son’ to be understood as visual, sensual images taken from our human relations and then projected mythologically into God? In that event how can we avoid projecting creaturely gender into God, and thinking of him as grandfather as well as father, for the only kind of father we know is one who is son of another father? To think of God like that, in terms of the creaturely content of images projected out of ourselves, inevitably gives rise to anthropomorphic and polymorphic notions of deity and in fact to polytheism and idolatry. However, if we think from a centre in God as he reveals himself to us through his Word incarnate in Jesus Christ, then we know him as Father in himself in an utterly unique and incomparable way which then becomes the controlling standard by reference to which all notions of creaturely fatherhood and sonship are to be understood. ‘God does not make man his pattern , but rather, since God alone is properly and truly Father, we men are called fathers of our own children, for of him every fatherhood in heaven and earth is named.’ Unique Fatherhood and unique Sonship in God mutually define one another in an absolute and singular way. As Athanasius pithily expressed it in rejection of Arian anthropocentric mythologising: ‘Just as we cannot ascribe a father to the Father, so we cannot ascribe a brother to the Son’.[1]

[1] T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, 69-70.

A Gospel Statement on the Trinity by Thomas Torrance

Thomas Torrance provides a rich statement on the Gospel situated in the Triune life of God:

While the Lord Jesus Christ constitutes the pivotal centre of our knowledge of God, God’s distinctive self-revelation as Holy Trinity, One Being, Three Persons, creates the overall framework within which all Christian theology is to be formulated. Understandably, therefore, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity has been called the innermost heart of Christian faith and worship, the trinityukrainecentral dogma of classical theology, the fundamental grammar of our knowledge of God. It belongs to the Gospel of God’s saving and redeeming love in Jesus Christ who died for us and rose again and has given us the Holy Spirit who has shed the love of God abroad in our hearts. The doctrine of the Trinity enshrines the essentially Christian conception of God: it constitutes the ultimate evangelical expression of the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ who though he was rich for our sakes became poor that we through his poverty might become rich, of the Love of God who did not spare his own Son but delivered him up for us all, for it is in that personal sacrifice of the Father to which everything in the Gospel goes back, and of the Communion of the Holy Spirit through whom and in whom we are made to participate in the eternal Communion of the Father and the Son and are united with one another in the redeemed life of the people of God. Through Christ and in the Spirit God has communicated himself to us in such a wonderful way that we may really know him and have communion with in his inner life as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.[1]

[1] Thoams F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons, 2.

Knowing the Infallible God as Fallible Humans in Always Reforming Moods in Stratified and Doxological Ways

We are all fallen human beings, even after we’ve been redeemed and participate in the grace of God in Jesus Christ (simul iustus et peccator). So when we as Christians attempt to think of or speak of God (or do theology) we always do so from a fallible broken position—this is what the Reformed archetypal and ectypal identifications for modes of knowing God are supposed to signify.

I think, if anything, our fallible status as creatures coram Deo ought to have a humiliating affect; such that we constantly recognize our fallible articulations of God’s infallible reality, and thus keep shattered-peoplepressing on, by the Holy Spirit, to attempt to proximate nostra theologia (our theology) closer and closer to God’s reality. This, as Kurt Anders Richardson develops, is part of the rationale and import of the reformed principle of semper reformandum (‘always reforming’). It isn’t that no genuine knowledge of God can be known—to the contrary—it is because of God’s gracious accommodation to us in Christ, and His Self-exegesis therein, that we know we can keep realistically pressing higher and farther in our attempts to move towards the unity of the faith (Ephesians 4) once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). In this vein, Richardson writes this:

To take Scripture as infallible does not mean that the reception of its communications takes place infallibly. Indeed, for those who acknowledge it, the very principle of semper reformandum means by definition that no formulation or act of the church or the believer can be infallible. “Ever reforming” means the full embrace of theological and missiological fallibility as the truth about our believing and ecclesial condition, everywhere, at all times, for everyone. Something akin to Karl Popper’s principle of falsifiability is at work in the history of theology when on attends strictly to the nature of theology as a human work. In this case, the falsifiability of doctrine does not mean that the truth of doctrine is dispensed with if a particular theological formulation has been falsified. Indeed, the very reason that doctrine is being constantly worked on is that the truth to which it refers has successfully won commitment over time. Falsifiability is a way of accounting for the modification of doctrinal formulation such that the core truths endure, while comprehension and application of them achieve greater success. Indeed, there is reflected a kind of “failing toward success.” But all of this takes place under divine grace.[1]

As evangelical Calvinists we are highly committed to this reality; i.e. the idea we have never arrived, particularly because of our simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and sinner) status. We are people always on the way, but as evangelical Calvinists, along with one of our favorites, Thomas Torrance, we recognize that we are not on the way in abstraction, but on the way in the One who is the Way, Truth, and Life, Jesus Christ.

It is because we have been reoriented and joined to God through the medial humanity of Jesus Christ that we can have a critically realistic hope of actually thinking from the One who has arrived for us; but at the same time realizing that we live in this in-between time. So we walk by faith not sight, and we recognize that there is a hopeful correspondence between God’s thoughts and our thought’s mediated to us in Jesus Christ; we think God from there, from this analogia fidei (analogy of faith, from the faith of Christ for us).

It is this constant growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ wherein something like T Torrance’s so called stratified knowledge of God arose from. Ben Myers describes this mode of knowing, in Torrance’s theology, for us:

Thomas F. Torrance’s model of the stratification of knowledge is one of his most striking and original contributions to theological method. Torrance’s model offers an account of the way formal theological knowledge emerges from our intutive and pre-conceptual grasp of God’s reality as it is manifest in Jesus Christ. It presents a vision of theological progression, in which our knowledge moves towards an ever more refined and more unified conceptualisation of the reality of God, while remaining closely coordinated with the concrete level of personal and experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ. According to this model, our thought rises to higher levels of theological conceptualisation only as we penetrate more deeply into the reality of Jesus Christ. From the ground level of personal experience to the highest level of theological reflection, Jesus Christ thus remains central. Through a sustained concentration on him and on his homoousial union with God, we are able to achieve a formal account of the underlying trinitarian relations immanent in God’s own eternal being, which constitute the ultimate grammar of all theological discourse.[2]

It is because we are fallible, precisely because, that we are so dependent upon the faith of Christ for us. Lest God graciously accommodated Himself to us in Christ we of all people would remain hopeless. It is this evangelical meeting of God in Christ where Torrance’s stratified knowledge of God is so enriching. God meets us where we are in Christ, inverts the natural paradigm for knowing god from ourselves to Him, and instead by grace breaks into our humanity and allows us to think God in ever increasing ways from the evangel into the inner recesses of His Triune life.

Richardson is right to draw our attention to the reasons why we should ‘always be reforming,’ and Torrance helps thicken that by pointing us to the frame from whence that can most fruitfully take place. We are not abstract human beings thinking from below to up, but we are concretely human by participating in and from God’s humanity for us in Jesus Christ. This is where reformation has happened first, in the hypostatic union of God and humanity in Christ; this is the nexus where we ever increasingly press forward in our knowledge of God as we think God from a center in Himself, Jesus Christ. Semper reformandum!

[1] Kurt Anders Richardson, Reading Karl Barth: New Directions For North American Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), 95.

[2] Benjamin Myers, “The Stratification of knowledge in the thought of T. F. Torrance,” SJT 61 (1): 1-15 (2008) Printed in the United Kingdom © 2008 Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd doi: 10.1017/S003693060700381X.

God’s Plight as Our Plight in Christ; Death Couldn’t Hold Him Down

I have read loads of theology books over the years, but I can’t ever recall being moved to tears as a result of reading them. That just changed as I’m finishing up Robert Dale Dawson’s book (published PhD dissertation) The Resurrection in Karl Barth. In the closing chapter he is offering up some critical constructive points in regard to Barth’s theology of resurrection and doctrine of christcrucifiedGod (prior to this, the whole of the book is affirmative of Barth in every way). Here, in the quote I am going to share from Dawson, he is offering a word of development relative to what he sees as somewhat of a lack in Barth’s relating of resurrection and Trinity. So that’s the context of the quote, but the quote really stands on its own, materially. The reality of what is being communicated is so deep, profound, and worship-inducing that indeed it actually did cause me to cry for a moment; because of the depth of love that God has for us. As you read this quote just reflect on what is being communicated, and allow it to cause worship. Dawson is reflecting on what has happened on the cross, and in the Triune life (as that implicates the being of God):

For what then is the Son appealing to the Father, except that the Father should restore him (and all who are gathered in him) to eternal life and fellowship with the Father? That is, he commends his Spirit into the hands of the Father in order that he may, by the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, be raised (that is, begotten as ever and always) into the being and perichoretic fellowship of the Trinity; that he may yet again and despite all assume his place as the Son of God bound eternally both to the Father and to humankind, the God-man who is alive and forevermore. This is not to say the Trinity has been dissolved in the death of the Son of God and remade in his resurrection, but that the Son of God has so bound himself to humankind that death’s threat against humanity must now also become a threat directly against the trinitarian being of God, a threat which can never be victorious for God simply lives in his freedom to exist as Trinity. The God-man has so bound himself to sinful men that he takes their plight, even their death and destruction, upon himself, such that their end is inextricably bound up with his. Yet it is the very nature of the being of God to will to be God not in isolation, not imprisoned in monadic aloneness, but in fellowship with himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Because it is the will and essence of God to be God in this manner, death has no victory, for God precisely in this moment reaffirms his eternal trinitarian being, this time with human being bound to himself in the being of the second Person. The resurrection is the outward form of God’s reaffirmation of himself as trinitarian being. That is God so binds himself to humankind in Jesus Christ that the very trinitarian being of God is threatened, by virtue of the fact that the God-man, the Son of God and the Son of Man, goes into death. The Son of God surely dies, and humankind with him, but not without hope. Beacause it is the very nature of God to elect himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; that is, because God continues to elect himself as the Father who is the fount of the eternal begetting of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit, the threat of the dissolution of God as Trinity is utterly – in the grace and freedom of the Father – nullified. What is more, the thread of the dissolution of creation and humankind is also removed forevermore. In other words, God removes the thread of death against humanity by securing human being in his own trinitarian life, against which death has no avail.[1]

[1] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 222.