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I have been thinking lately about how easily we, as Christians, are seduced into the ways of the ‘world’; even when we are vigilantly attempting to live sanctified lives unto God. It is seemingly impossible to not be enculturated, at some level, to the point that our guard is taken down and the world system then seeps into the pores of our lives such that we become blind to the stark reality of God’s otherness and holiness; the holiness that He requires us to live into: ‘Be Holy as I am Holy.’ So what’s our hope? Can we have a daily knowledge of God which keeps us from being sucked into the ‘ways of the world,’ such that we have the capacity to not just resist, but discern the various snares set for us by the enemy of our souls?

John Calvin in the very opening of his Institute of the Christian Religion famously offers his thoughts on knowledge of God and knowledge of self. I think his words are a helpful way to think about our position before God, and how it is that we come to have a genuine knowledge of ourselves; just as we come to have a genuine knowledge of God through union with Christ. I want to suggest that it is as we inhabit this frame, on a daily basis, that we will come to have the proper perspective for doing ‘battle’ in a world system that seeks, at every turn, to take us captive to do its will rather than God’s. Calvin writes (in the 1541, French version of his Institute):

For this pride is rooted in all of us, that it always seems to us that we are just and truthful, wise and holy, unless we are convicted by clear evidence of our unrighteousness, lies, madness, and uncleanness. For we are not convinced if we look only at ourselves and not equally at the Lord, who is the unique rule and standard to which this judgment must be conformed. For since we are all naturally inclined to hypocrisy, an empty appearance of righteousness quite satisfies us instead of the truth; and since there is nothing at all around us which is not greatly contaminated, what is a little less dirty is received by us as very pure, so long as we are happy with the limits of our humanity which is completely polluted. Just as the eye which looks at nothing but black-colored things judges something that is a poor white color, or even half-gray, to be the whitest thing in the world. It is also possible to understand better how much we are deceived in our measure of the powers of the soul, by an analogy from physical sight. For if in broad daylight we look down at the earth, or if we look at the things around us, we think that our vision is very good and clear. But when we lift our eyes directly to the sun, the power which was evident on the earth is confounded and blinded by such a great light, so that we are obliged to admit that the good vision with which we look at earthly things is very weak when we look at the sun. The same thing happens when we measure our spiritual abilities. For as long as we do not consider more than earthly matters we are very pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, and flatter and praise ourselves, and thus come close to considering ourselves half divine. But if we once direct our thought to the Lord and recognize the perfection of His righteousness, wisdom, and power (the rule and standard by which we must measure), what pleased us before under the guise of righteousness will appear dirtied with very great wickedness; what deceived us so wondrously under the guise of wisdom will appear to be extreme madness; what had the appearance of power will be shown to be miserable weakness: so it is when what seemed most perfect in us is compared with God’s purity.[1]

Calvin’s thought here is a prescient word for our current moment in world history. As Christians, in the main, we have firmly planted our feet on the slippery slope of cultural appropriation to the point that genuine encounter with the living God has become fleeting; instead we typically end up encountering self-projections who we have conflated with divinity.

Some may read these words from Calvin, and read: Legalism or nomism. But if that’s the conclusion then Calvin’s point is only proven, not repudiated. Christians are so afraid of being legalists, that they’ve lost sight of the demand of God to be holy as He is Holy. Christians, unfortunately, have wrongly read legalism and God’s holiness and purity together; but this couldn’t be further from the reality. Legalism is a man-made standard, the very standard Calvin is attempting to marginalize and undercut, that elevates human-centered wisdom and righteousness to divine status, and then, if at all, attempts to live up to this artificial standard to achieve favor before God and men. But this is all wrong, as Calvin so insightfully identifies. God’s holiness is sui generis, it is of another sort; another world even. God’s holiness is set apart by His eternal Life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in interpenetrative union. This is the knowledge that sets us free to see ourselves as we are; this is the knowledge that undoes our artificial systems of right and wrong. It is a knowledge of God that sets us free to see the world as it is, as God sees it for us in Christ; a world that, in God’s economy has come to have a cruciform shape, such that to think God rightly first requires a daily reckoning of ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in and from Christ.

It is possible to maneuver the terrain of the current world system as a Christian, and not be fully sublimated by the seductive siren calls of its minions of “light.” But it requires the sort of knowledge Calvin alerts us to. It requires a daily battle that we ourselves have no strength to fight; so it requires that we actively recognize our passive posture before God, with the hope that He, in His mercy, will supply us with the grace sufficient for us to see as He sees. It seems that, by-and-large, the church, even the so called evangelical churches, is failing at this in radical ways. If we are going to be ‘saved’ we must have to do with the real and living God, not with a god who is a manifest destiny of our own making. This is the challenge that Calvin leaves us with: Are we going to battle to seek God while He may be found; are we going to wake up each morning, and reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ? It is only in this Spirit empowered mode of living coram Deo that the Christian will have the resource to be an ‘overcomer’ rather than someone overcome by this world system.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 24.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

18 For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.[1]

After writing bloggy theology for so many years you start to wonder who you are writing for. Personally, I have always really written for myself in an attempt to articulate unarticulated thoughts racing around in my head. Writing helps to provide a semblance to my thoughts, and thus blogging turns out to be a great outlet in an attempt to bring order where there is only disorder (in my head) in regard to the various themes and theological loci running wild in my personal universe.

The previous paragraph was simply a notation of how I often feel when I write a blog post. I usually (as you know) just reflect on whatever I’m reading at the moment. Often I refer to theological antidotes that require some sort of theological context in order for the antidote to be seen as an actual need. But because of space limitations (because of this medium) I don’t have the time or space to problematize things to the point that my posts come with the sort of gravitas they actually do have in their particular contexts. This said: this post has to do with Jesus’ deity and its significance towards understanding who God is, and how it is that we come to know who God is. I’m not really sure these sorts of issues press upon the evangelical psyche in North America these days. I’m not really sure doctrinal matters matter anymore; that the average evangelical really gets how significant sound doctrine is. I’m not sure evangelicals really grasp that they are supposed to care about sound theological reflection; I’m pretty sure most evangelicals don’t even realize that there is such a thing as sound theological reflection, or that they’ve even heard of such grammar. For the average evangelical the deity of Christ is a given, but because of the lacuna of doctrinal teaching in the churches I’m almost positive that even this ‘given’ is no longer understood as such (that is if you asked the average evangelical to explain why the deity of Christ matters in regard to salvation and other important things).

In an attempt to help assuage some of the evangelical absence, when it comes to being mindful of the most important doctrinal matter we could imagine, I wanted to offer a quote from Karl Barth (most evangelicals, these days, don’t even realize that they should be “afraid” of Barth) with reference to the significance of the deity of Jesus Christ and how that relates to his humanity. You will note in this quote that Barth is addressing some ancient Christological heresies, namely ebionitism and docetism, respectively. Barth is pressing home what is noted in John 5.18 (etc.), and grounding the Son’s relationship to the Father as the basis for appreciating the type of Revelation that occurs in the Son become human. Of note, at least by implication (in my mind), is the way Barth understands deity; you will see that it is necessarily trinitarian, and thus not a philosophical concept of the Divine reality. Here I am pressing against a methodological turn that has developed in the history of theologizing; viz. the way Christians have deployed philosophical imagination towards conceiving God (or not). I’d suggest, stringently, that we not rely on philosophical imagination as the primary means by which we think Godness, but instead rely upon God’s special Revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ as sufficient for imagining the verities of who God is. Barth writes:

Jesus is Lord—this is how we think we must understand the New Testament statement in concert with the ancient Church—because He has it from God whom He calls His Father to be the Lord, because with this Father of His, as the Son of this Father, as “the eternal Father’s only child,” He is the Lord—an “is “ which we deny if we are unable to affirm it with those who first uttered it, yet which cannot be deduced, or proved, or discussed, but can only be affirmed in an analytic proposition as the beginning of all thinking about it. In distinction from the assertion of the divinisation of a man or the humanisation of a divine idea, the statement about Christ’s deity is to be understood in the sense that Christ reveals His Father. But this Father of His is God. He who reveals Him, then, reveals God. But who can reveal God except God Himself? Neither a man that has been raised up nor an idea that has come down can do it. These are both creatures. Now the Christ who reveals the Father is also a creature and His work is a creaturely work. But if He were only a creature He could not reveal God, for the creature certainly cannot take God’s place and work in His place. If He reveals God, then irrespective of His creaturehood He Himself has to be God. And since this is a case of either/or. He has to be full and true God without reduction or limitation, without more or less. Any such restriction would not merely weaken His deity; it would deny it. To confess Him as the revelation of His Father is to confess Him as essentially equal in deity with this Father of His.[2]

Barth is making an unusually syllogistic case for the deity of Christ; typically it is more paradoxical (or dialectical sounding). But what stands out is the way Barth ties the deity of Christ to the Father-Son relationship. If the Father is God, and the Father is indeed the Father, then this implies a Son; if the Son is the Son of the Father, then like the Father the Son is equally God. This seems rather straightforward reasoning, except for the fact that we are thinking a primordial reality that stands behind and not after how we think Father-Son (or offspring) relations. What comes through most sharply is that only God can reveal God; as such it is significant to understand just what is taking place in the Incarnation. It isn’t a projection of God into the world; it isn’t a projection of the world into God; it is God revealing Godself in the eternal Son as the express image of the relation He has always had as the Son of the Father by the communion-ing of the Holy Spirit.

I have never ever heard such verities referred to from the pulpits of evangelical churches. I have heard such pulpits wax eloquent about how they believe that the Son is both God and Man; but I have never heard that explicated with depth from evangelical pulpits. The most I’ve heard from evangelical pulpits, in this regard, is when they have a special speaker come and offer a primer on how to engage with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons; but that is not what we are doing in this post with Barth. Christians need to understand the majesty of the God with whom they have to do. They need to have their minds blown by the concrete realization that their salvation and very breath is contingent upon the grace that God is and has become for them in His entrance into the fallen humanity of fallen humanity and from thence redeeming life anew in resurrection splendor. But evangelicals really have no time for this; at least most of the pastors don’t. If anything, evangelical pastors, if they are being tempted to think more deeply, are being shanghaied by the ‘retrieval’ movement wherein philosophy not Revelation serves as the bases by which they think they must think deeply about God.

[1] John 5.18, NASB.

[2] Barth, CD I/1 §11, 113.

We don’t hear a lot about EFS these days online, but a couple of years ago it was all the rage. Part and parcel with eternal functional subordination is a social trinitarianism wherein we seemingly have three subjects, not one in the Divine Monarxia. I note a social trinitarianism inherent to the EFS position precisely at the point that we can ostensibly think that the Son could somehow be eternally obedient to the Father in a ‘subordinate’ manner. This reeks with the notion that there is a rupture between the Father and the Son (and thus by extrapolation, the Holy Spirit) such that the Son’s being is distinct from the Father’s; just at the point that it’s conceivable that the Son could in any way be subordinate to the Father in the eternal reality. What we have then, if this is the case is a tri-theism; viz. the idea that there are three distinct centers of consciousness within the Godhead. But as orthodox Christians we know this is nothing more than a load of piping hot rubbish.

Karl Barth, even though he enjoys some level of whipping boy status among the retrievers of Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology, is in line, in his own lexical way, with the catholic and Protestant Reformed thinking on the single subject reality of God’s eternal being as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (some like to refer to this as God’s simplicity). In other words, Barth serves as an excellent voice of clarity contra EFS, subordinationism (of all stripes), and tri-theism. Here he writes on the complicated lexical reality of ‘person’ as that relates to the unity of being as the Divine life; unity in reference to the multiplicity of persons as the simplicity of the eternal living God.

“Person” as used in the Church doctrine of the Trinity bears no direct relation to personality. The meaning of the doctrine is not, then, that there are three personalities in God. This would be the worst and most extreme expression of tritheism, against which we must be on guard at this stage. The doctrine of the personality of God is, of course, connected with that of the Trinity to the extent that, in a way yet to be shown, the trinitarian repetitions of the knowledge of the lordship of God radically prevent the divine He, or rather Thou, from becoming in any respect an It. But in it we are speaking not of the three divine I’s, but thrice of the one divine I. The concept of equality of essence or substance (…, consubstantialitas) in the Father, Son and Spirit is thus at every point to be understood also and primarily in the sense of identity of substance. Identity of substance implies the equality of substance of “the persons.”[1]

This is hard teaching for those committed to sub-orthodox machinations, but it is the better way. For orthodox Christians there is One God in Three Persons, and Three Persons as the One God. The best way is to simply allow this biblical and revelatory reality to contradict any other sort of runaway ideas you might have about God; even with the best of your intentions in tow. Christians are Trinitarian Monotheists; don’t allow the Trinitarian part to throw you off though. We hold to simplicity (properly reified) in multiplicity; in this we don’t confuse ousia (being) with hypostaseis (persons), instead we hold them together in just the way they have been revealed in the singular name of the living God.

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1§9, 56.

There are so called postmetaphysical theologians out there who follow in the wake of the mediating theologians of Germany. Some attempt to read Barth’s doctrine of election in these terms; the idea being that in Barth’s reformulated doctrine of election as the Son elects humanity for himself as the electing God in this act, in this being in becoming, in the resurrection of new humanity in Christ’s, God’s very being is constituted. The caveat, at least for some, is that this avoids a panentheistic collapse of God into his creation precisely because God’s life of freedom stands behind this choice to not be God without us, but only with us. But then this is ironic since this caveat, ironically, ends up introducing a metaphysic back into the mix; it’s just that the metaphysic now has to do with Divine Freedom rather than Divine “isness.” Further, the caveat itself doesn’t actually work: God’s being still ends up being what it is by its actualization in the creation; in the miracle of resurrection and the new life therein.

I can’t accept this sort of postmetaphysical approach to theology. I can accept the idea that God has chosen to be for us and not God without us, but I can’t make that constitutive of God’s being. This ultimately makes God as much a predicate of his creation as does God entering the creation under the dictates of the absolutum decretum. Thomas Torrance offers an alternative tradition to the one we’ve just been describing. It still has some common features as far as an emphasis on God’s freedom to be for us, and it takes up much of Barth’s reformulation of the classical doctrine of election, but it avoids falling into the sort of panentheistic collapse that plagues the “postmetaphysical” approach. He writes:

Let it be repeated that the God who has revealed himself to us in the Gospel as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not a God who lives for himself alone, but who lives his all self-sufficient divine Life in love for others and has poured out his love without reserve in the gift of his only begotten Son to us as our Saviour, and in the Holy Spirit who sheds abroad that very love in our hearts. This does not imply, as we have taken care to show, that God is conditioned by, far less constituted through, his relation to us who are quite other than he is, for he is already concerned with Others eternally and inherently in himself, in the three-fold otherness of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in their Love for one another and Communion with another. It is from the free ground of that transcendent otherness in himself in his Triune being, that God freely and spontaneously creates others outwith himself for fellowship with himself and brings them into actual communion with himself. This free-flowing unconditioned outgoing movement of his Being means that God refuses to shut off from us in his unapproachable Majesty, infinite otherness and incomprehensibility. He makes himself really accessible to us, and does so not only in communicating himself to us in the incarnation of his Son, but in imparting to us his Holy Spirit in such an utterly astonishing way as to actualize among us his self-giving to us as the Lord and at the same time to effect our receiving of him in his self-giving.[1]

In Torrance we still have a classical conception of God’s antecedent life; his ontological life prior to his outer revealed in the economy. The ‘collapse’ is not present, but there is still an emphasis on God’s being in his inner Triune life being for the other; precisely because this has been the eternal reality of God’s life as Father for the Son, Son for the Father, Holy Spirit for Son and Father as the koinonial reality of eternal fullness. I commend Torrance’s view to you.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark Publishing, 2016), 148.

If God is outside of time, if God creates time as Augustine and the tradition contends—to one degree or another—then it would follow that some form of determinism is the way that God must relate to the world. That he has in-built into the world system a set of causal relations (the classical philosophers offer the categories here) wherein his timelessness is untouched and his world is conditioned by this sort of Divine touch. If Augustine’s doctrine of creation, which is what we are referring to, is the basis for understanding how creation operates vis-à-vis her Creator, then what we must be left with is a decretal God who is not personally active in creation, per se. In other words, if Augustine is correct, God’s relationship to the world is inactively active and must be encountered, even in the incarnation, only through the causal conditions dictated by a creation created under the conditions required to keep God timeless and creation ‘timeful.’

We will unpack this further as we engage with Colin Gunton’s treatment, and critique of Augustine on these points[1], and then attempt to constructively apply these insights (Gunton’s) into alignment with asking questions about human agency in the drama of creation; more particularly in the drama of redemption/salvation (as we end up referring to Barth’s theology). What you will notice, as we engage with Gunton, is his emphasis upon Pneumatology and understanding that as the personalist relief that Augustine’s doctrine of creation and God do not seemingly present.

In sum, Augustine tends to conclude that because creation is the act of the timeless God, then all God’s acts must be conceived to be timeless. The outcome for him is that God’s act of creation is understood to be instantaneous, and the days of Genesis demythologised away. He would not have liked ‘creationism’ either. However, if the divine creation of all things is simultaneous, it is difficult to take the order of time and space seriously as the good creation of God. Symptomatic is Augustine’s tendency to hold that the fact that activities and events take time is a sign of their fallenness, making a gnostic equation of materiality and fallennes dangerously close. ‘The discursiveness of thought and speech, the necessary division of discourse into a temporal succession of a multitude of parts, stands as a testimony of the Fall and thus to the separation of the rational soul from the perfect unity of God.’ If we are not to fall into that trap, we must do what Augustine failed to do and consider more closely what might be the shape of divine action in time. . . . We have seen that Augustine’s christology is centered on the eternal Son, and is neglectful, in this context, of the incarnation. But to understand the relation of the eternal God to time and history, that is precisely what we cannot neglect. Here is the life of a man which, as a narrated whole, from beginning to end, is also, and without diminishing its character as human, also divine act. This is a divine act, an act of the eternal God, which is, so to speak, stretched out in time.[2]

We see the dilemma as laid out by Gunton with reference to his construal of Augustine’s doctrine of creation. We also see that Gunton has set himself up to offer a solution to the ostensible lacuna offered by Augustine’s theology in regard to thinking time and eternity in relation to God’s interaction therein. Gunton notes the role that Christology and the incarnation ought to have for Augustine, but because of Augustine’s prior thinking on a timeless God, Gunton contends that Augustine does not have the necessary and categorical conceptual realities to allow him to arrive at the sort of fulsome biblical picture we ought to come to when thinking about God’s relationship to the world in time. As one reads further with Gunton he offers a nice quote from Barth which helps to correct this lack in Augustine. I’d like to share that section, but because of space-limitation I will bypass that and share Gunton’s own proposal as he seeks to help Augustine’s lackluster doctrine of creation as that relates to God and salvation.

Here is Gunton abridged once again:

The Spirit is the one who enables the creation to be truly spatial and temporal by relating it to God the Father through the one who took our time and space to himself in order to redeem it.

Determinism is accordingly best avoided not by reading time back into God but by focusing on the action of the Spirit who is the giver of freedom and the one who enables the created order to be itself: to become what it was created to be. And in that regard, a note of eschatology cannot be far behind. To speak of the work of the Spirit in relation to creation is to speak of the created order eschatologically: that is to say, to direct or thoughts to the end. And the point of this is that we cannot understand the beginning without some orientation to the end. Already on the seventh day of the Genesis account an eschatological dimension may be present, especially in the light of the fact that that day comes in later tradition to be treated as a type of the coming Kingdom of God. Creation in the beginning cannot finally be understood without its directedness to an end, because it has to be understood as God’s project, a project in which he freely and graciously involves us, his personal creation.[3]

Gunton’s response to Augustine’s dilemma—created because of Augustine’s idea on the relationship between time and eternity—is to emphasize hard the reality of the Holy Spirit and his ability to transect creation and un-creation through the mediated reality and singular person known as Jesus Christ. I’m still waiting for Gunton to fill his thoughts out further in later chapters.

Ultimately there is some level of mystery between how the timeless God becomes timeful in the incarnation; how the mediation between God and humanity in the singular person of Jesus Christ does not become atomically ripped asunder as the twain meet. Gunton lays the burden of this union upon the creative and recreative activity of the Holy Spirit.

But what is more interesting to me is how Gunton’s emphasis upon the eschatological and the Holy Spirit implicates how human agency operates in a world where there is a hard ontological distinction between the Ultimacy of Creator God, and his creation. How does determinism get voided in such a world? Some, in fact many Calvinists celebrate the idea of determinism, and the attending decretal God (who relates to the world through decrees and the Aristotelian theory of causation therein). Gunton is attempting to offer a constructive proposal while at the same time remaining within the lines of the traditional-metaphysics that Augustine among others presents the church catholic; a tradition that seeks to understand a creation that is perfected by grace as that is presented through Christ by the Holy Spirit.

So we have the traditional-metaphysical, and then we have something like what Karl Barth offers. Some people, some Barthians, want to label Barth’s approach, in particular, and the modern approach in general as postmetaphysical. But of course this is mistaken (at least in Barth’s case). Getting beyond that, at a material level, Barth maintains that God’s grace is constantly contradicting ‘nature’; it is within this contradiction wherein new life is found precisely because God’s grace is God in Christ for us. Note George Hunsinger:

Human Cooperation Does Not Effect Salvation

Barth does not deny that human freedom “cooperates” with divine grace. He denies that this cooperation in any way effects salvation. Although grace makes human freedom possible as a mode of acting (modus agendi), that freedom is always a gift. It is always imparted to faith in the mode of receiving salvation (modus recipiendi), partaking of it (modus participandi), and bearing witness to it (modus testificandi),  never in the mode of effecting it (modus efficiendi). As imparted by the Spirit’s miraculous operation, human freedom is always the consequence of salvation, never its cause, and therefore in its correspondence to grace always eucharistic (modus gratandi et laudandi). These distinctions apply both objectively and subjectively, that is, not only to salvation as it has taken place extra nos, but also as it occurs in nobis. Since to be a sinner means to be incapacitated, grace means capacitating the incapacitated despite their incapacitation. Sinners capacitated by grace remain helpless in themselves. Grace does not perfect and exceed human nature in its sorry plight so much as it contradicts and overrules it.

What happens is this: in nobis, in our heart, in the very center of our existence, a contradiction is lodged against our unfaithfulness. It is a contradiction that we cannot dodge, but have to validate. In confronting it we cannot cling to our unfaithfulness, for through it our unfaithfulness is not only forbidden but canceled and rendered impossible. Because Jesus Christ intervenes pro nobis and thus in nobis, unfaithfulness to God has been rendered basically an impossible possibility. It is a possibility disallowed and thus no longer to be realized . . . , one we recognize as eliminated and taken away by the omnipotent contradiction God lodges within us. [Karl Barth, “Extra Nos-Pro Nobis-In Nobis,” Thomist 50 (1986): 497-511, on p. 510.]

In this miraculous and mysterious way, by grace alone — that is, through a continual contradiction of nature by grace resulting in a provisional “conjunction of opposites” (coniunctio oppositorum) — the blind see, the lame walk, and the dead are raised to life (cf. Matt. 11:4).[4]

In Barth we move beyond conceiving of God’s timelessness, instead we think of God in terms of his graciousness; graciousness is the very basis and point of creation’s reality as that is found in God’s choice to be for creation in the Son (election). Further, as the Hunsinger quote indicates, for Barth grace is the space wherein a God-world relation is given reality. There is no competition then between time and eternity in this space since the space charted in advance, in the Christ (Eph. 2.8-10), is an always already relational space wherein the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have fellowshipped for eternity. For Barth’s theology, we are brought into this space just as the Son is both the electing God as he elected our humanity for himself and graciously brings us into this union by his faith and repentance for us.

Mystery is not elided in Barth, it’s just that the mystery is grounded in the concrete reality and givenness of God’s life for us Jesus Christ. Grace is the relational ground upon which creation finds fertility to be what it is before God; to be free for God just as God has been free in and for himself by his nature as the One God in Three. I think this is the movement that Gunton wants to move within as well. In part of his discussion I didn’t share he presses into Irenaeus in order to get beyond the ‘other-worldliness’ of Augustine’s notion of the timeless God. The issue that needs to be continuously honored is the Creator-creature distinction. For Barth he modulates that through focusing on how Christ brings those two realities together in his singular person. He doesn’t answer the how, but he does engage with the what and the who, and in that engagement he offers a concrete way to think about God’s relationship to the world without falling prey to the determinism that plagues so much of the classical theistic complex (because he avoids speculation about the timelessness of God for one thing).

I realize this post is somewhat fragmented in certain ways. But hopefully you’ll be able to make something out of it as you think about who God is and how he relates to the world. Further, hopefully you’ll be able to see how it is possible to get passed a deterministic understanding of God, and be able to think of human freedom vis-à-vis God through the relational and gracious terms laid out by Barth. What you should bear in mind is that there is mystery all around. The question for me is: where is the mystery grounded? Is it grounded in discursive speculation (Augustine) about who God is, or is it grounded in God’s concrete Self-revelation of himself for us in Jesus Christ?

 

[1] I should note here that I am not unaware of the fact that there has been a renaissance within Patristic theological studies that Gunton himself was not privy to. In other words, the way Gunton read Augustine was in fact based upon a reading that has come under critique. So read his critique and development of Augustine advisedly. That said: I don’t think what I am sharing from Gunton is totally disputable. I think his description of Augustine’s understanding of eternity and time is not all that controversial; although his conclusions and drawing out of its implications may well might be. Be that as it may I am still using his work to make a basic point about determinism in Christian theology. I think Gunton’s emphasis on the Spirit is an important corrective, and helps, even still, to fill out a way Christian theology, even under traditional terms, has capacity to offer a personalist understanding of a God-world relation wherein human agency can be grounded outside of a universe that seems to require a determinist/decretal understanding of the God-world relation.

[2] Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical And Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), Loc 1191, 1197 kindle.

[3] Ibid., 1231, 1238.

[4] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 165-66.

We will get back to the analogia entis and a doctrine of creation at a later date. In this post we will explore, briefly, a theology proper of God’s being-in-becoming within a dialectical theological frame. What I am going to share (again from David Congdon — I’m currently reading through his big book on Bultmann) represents an approach I was first exposed to probably back in about 2005, and is the style of theology that has in-formed the shape of my theological existence since. As you will see it has shreds of narratival, existential, dialectical, post-liberal components making up the trajectory; but importantly, for me, while I am a serious fan of this idea of ‘being-in-becoming’ I still am also committed to orthodox components, and traditional elements that go into supplying a grammar for thinking God that I believe best comports with what we have given to us and for us in God’s Self-revelation and exegesis in the eternal Logos made flesh, in Jesus Christ. So maybe I’m Orthodox&Modern. But it should also be noted that while I retrieve from the modern period, I’m doing just that. In other words, I’m not arriving at all my theological conclusions under the same pressures say as someone like Schleiermacher, Barth, Bultmann, or Jüngel; instead I’m reaping the benefits of their labors and conclusions, attempting to constructively bring them into relief such that they help to edify a doctrine of God that, in my view, best reflects the Evangel.

In the following Congdon helps explicate the soundings of Bultmann’s theology proper for us. What you will see is that at this level Bultmann and Barth have much in common (you’ll also want to reference Eberhard Jüngel’s book God’s Being is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth); they have a shared vision, at least when it comes to the actualism funding this understanding of God. Let’s dig in, and then I will follow with some closing comments (this post will not be as long as the last one).

We must begin where Bultmann himself does: with Jesus as understood in the tradition of early Christianity. In his 1926 Jesus book Bultmann describes the concept of God that comes to expression in as his teaching within the Synoptic tradition. He begins by contrasting the Jewish and Greek notions of God. The Greeks conceive of God as a law-governing worldly phenomena, as “the origin and formative principle of the world” that lies beyond but always connected to the cosmos. God is therefore an idea graspable by reason, an object that “can be subjected to observational thinking.” Judaism, by contrast, views God not as an idea or principle but as the sovereign, creative will. God is the creator who wills the existence of the world, and thus “in relation to human beings God is the sovereign lord who deals with people according to God’s will as the potter deals with the clay.” There is no talk of metaphysical natures or substances. God’s transcendence is not secured by rational principles that bind the idea of God necessarily to the world; rather, God is transcendent by virtue of the creation’s relatedness to and dependence upon the will of the creator.

As a Jewish prophet and teacher, Jesus shares the Jewish conception of God and weds it to his proclamation of the coming eschatological kingdom, which serves only to heighten the distinctiveness of his understanding of God in contrast to all Hellenistic notions.

For him God is not an object of thinking, of speculation. . . . God is for him neither a metaphysical substance [Wesenheit] nor a cosmic power nor a law of the world, but rather a personal will, holy and gracious will. Jesus speaks of God only to say that the human person is claimed by God’s will and is determined in the person’s present existence by God’s demand, God’s judgment, God’s grace. The remote God is form him at the same time the God who is near. . . . Jesus speaks of God not in universals truths and theorems but only of how God is for human beings, how God deals with human beings. He therefore does not speak objectively of the attributes of God, of God’s eternity, immutability, etc., by which Greek thinking endeavored to describe the transcendent essence of God.

Anticipating the objection that this account seems to suggest that Jesus only speaks of God subjectively, in terms of God’s being ad extra, and not objectively in terms of the ad intra, Bultmann adds that “Jesus does not differentiate between a remote, mysterious, metaphysical essence of God and God’s action toward us as the expression of this essence. Rather, the remote and the near God are one, and we cannot speak of God in Jesus’ sense if we do not speak of God’s action.” In other words, God is what God does, the being of God, according to this interpretation of Jesus, has to be identified with God’s action in history. The divine essence is the divine will. God’s will is determinative of God’s very being.[1]

If you have ever heard of a postmetaphysical or anti-metaphysical approach to theology then what you just read is that. What you just read is also what is at the nub of controversy between Barth scholars (e.g. “Barth Wars” or “Companion Controversy”); some believe Barth should be read just as we have explicated above, and others believe Barth should be read more “metaphysically.” Personally, I slide back and forth on a continuum in-between. Sometimes I feel more metaphysical in orientation, but usually my default is more post-metaphysical; what I prefer to call narratival (i.e. following the contours of the narrative of written Scripture; Robert Jenson exemplifies this style).

Many will be rebuffed by the Jewish versus Greek distinction underscored by Congdon’s treatment of Bultmann, but I still believe that distinction has teeth (even acknowledging the von Harnackian thesis and its supposed defeat among certain thinkers; thinkers who want to “Greekify” God in certain ways). But I will submit: I think the reason I have been attracted to this distinction and to the actualist narratival approach to developing a doctrine of God, in particular, and doing theology in general is because I have first and foremost been a bible reader (and remain such). So my own default is going to almost sound like de nuda scriptura (or solo scriptura) rather than a sola scriptura that allows the tradition of the Church to inform its interpretation of Scripture, theologically. But, again, I’m somewhere in-between; but then again I think Barth was too. I’m interested in engaging constructively with the grammar the tradition of the church has supplied for us, and then reifying that grammar, or better, refining that grammar such that the God revealed in Jesus Christ, under the terms we have just been exposed to through Congdon’s Bultmann/Barth, is allowed to excavate the traditional symbols under the recognition that God’s being in becoming looks exactly like Jesus acts (e.g. ‘If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father’ cf. Jn. 14). Thomas Torrance is also in this camp; representing more of a mediating character from Bultmann/Barth to an even more focused approach and emphasis upon the ecclesiological symbols or grammar of the tradition. Bringing Torrance into this discussion; I often find myself siding with the Barth side rather than the Torrance ecclesiocentric type (the Barth emphasis of God’s being-in-becoming).

Anyway, another blog post; more to think about; thanks for thinking with me.

 

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 322-24.

Thomas Torrance’s project was largely about reifying classical theological concepts under the pressure provided for by a personalist understanding of the Triune life; Barth in his own way obviously reformulates the tradition as well. What I want to do with this post is share a snippet from John Webster and his description of Divine Simplicity vis-à-vis a doctrine of creation, and then suggest a way that this might be reified in a Torrancean or Barthian way. Webster writes:

Simplicity is a broad term for the fact that God is not formed from elements, whether internal or external; God has no career, no process of coming-to-be. Simplicity indicates the intrinsic absence or need for derivation in God and, further, betokens that God is not ordered to anything else, even as the most excellent or supreme being. The world, therefore, is not a concomitant to God. ‘[I]t is absolutely necessary that God should be differently related to his effects than any other possible cause to its effects and that he should possess his nature in a different way from any other possible being. The concept of “incompositeness” enables us to secure the assertion of these things.’

Because God is simple, he is absolutely and not merely contingently other than the world. God’s not being part of the world is not such that he is some reality alongside and contrasted with the world, as if God and the world formed a pair with their respective natures determined in part by their divergence and differentiation from each other. The otherness of God as creator is not an instance of correlativity or complementarity. God is non aliud, beyond relations of similarity or contrast. ‘Creatures are not related to God as to a thing of a different genus, but as to something outside of and prior to all genera.’[1]

I want to affirm, in principle, what Simplicity intends to signify in regard to God’s “antecededness” and otherness. What I have emboldened, I believe, is of the upmost to affirm in regard to recognizing the distinction between Creator/creature in a God-world relation. Both Torrance and Barth also want to, and do affirm this reality about God; this is the orthodox and catholic affirmation that we seen present in the lives and thought frames of all orthodox thinkers in the realm of the church catholic transcending all periods of church history.

Simplicity is an important feature of Christian theology. I think though that while it can be and ought to be affirmed in its conceptuality that there are different ways to articulate it within a Dogmatic frame. Interestingly Webster is largely working from Aquinas’s understanding of Simplicity, but Aquinas held along with the Fourth Lateran Council that while there was certainly an absolute distinction between the Creator and creatures that nevertheless there remained a possibility of ‘contact’ of similarity between God as the first mover over against the moved movers wherein a knowledge of God could be connived by way of analogy [of being]. This is where I demur. With Barth (and Torrance) I maintain that while God is Simple, properly reified, that the divide is so great between He and us that outwith his gracious willingness to step down and come to us in Christ in the miracle of resurrection that there is no way to know God; and this precisely because of God’s Simple nature. Barth, and Torrance following, I believe actually is in a place, with his anti-natural-theology approach, to magnify the Creator/creature distinction much more than even Thomas Aquinas.

George Hunsinger helps us grasp how Barth thought we might know God precisely at the point that God in himself is unknowable. Barth had a way to bridge the gap between God and us without positing, as Thomas did, some sort of innate analogical point of contact between us and God. Note:

Barth solved the problem of analogical discourse by appealing not so much to nature as to grace. Although human language was inherently incapable of referring to God, it was nevertheless made capable of doing so. Human language, as sanctified by grace, was at once affirmed, annulled, and elevated — affirmed in its creatureliness and annulled in its incapacity, in order to be elevated beyond itself. This gracious process of affirming, nullifying, and elevating, of capacitating the incapacitated, was associated with being raised from the dead (II/1, 231). It was therefore miraculous and beyond comprehension. Barth’s controlling metaphor was not creation but resurrection.

Grace made possible, and continued to make possible, what was otherwise impossible. Analogical discourse was grounded not in some metaphysical similarity between God and the creature, but solely in the sovereign freedom of divine grace. Human language, without ceasing to be essentially inadequate, was extended to be made fully appropriate. To be made appropriate despite being inadequate meant becoming absolutely dependent on grace. It was a miraculous dependence that occurred perfectly and perpetually: not statically but dynamically, not merely once and for all, but continually again and again.

Yet in elevating human language beyond its natural capacities, God “does not perform a violent miracle” (II/1, 229). The Creator enjoys an original and proper claim on human language, even though it has no such claim on him. Neither human sin nor creaturely finitude could undo this primordial divine claim. Human language belongs to the good creation in and through which God knows himself as God. When the Lord God graciously elevates human words, concepts, and images to participate in the truth of his own self-knowledge, language is not alienated from its original purpose, “but, on the contrary, restored to it” (II/1, 229).

For Barth, because God and the creature are incommensurable, any ontological continuity between them — not only regarding predicates like goodness, reason, and wisdom, but also regarding “non-agential” predicates like being, beauty, and light — must be seen as miraculously given, again and again, from above. Ontological continuity with the reality of God does not belong to the creature qua creature. It does not belong to the creature as a given endowment or a fixed condition — not originally, and not even subsequently. The continuity does not exist except as it is continually given, and it is not given except miraculously through God’s gracious operation. As continually though miraculously given, the continuity is not merely “occasional” (a common misunderstanding of Barth). It is rather a function of the perpetual operation of God’s grace as grounded and centered in Christ from before the foundation of the world. As such the continuity is always at once real and yet also incomprehensible. Therefore the ontological difference between God and the creature is not seen as “infinitely greater” but as absolute. Any similarities between the creature and God — real though incomprehensible, incomprehensible though real — are not grounded in the creatureliness of the creature, but strictly and entirely (not just partially) in divine grace as a perpetual and miraculous operation from above.[2]

For Barth it is Grace all the way down; grace not a perfected nature is the way Barth traverses the ditch between God and humanity; grace who in fact is Jesus Christ.

While I appreciate Webster’s description of Simplicity I think Barth’s way of thinking it actually magnifies Simplicity insofar as the Creator/creature distinction is honored precisely by radicalizing a concept of Grace by seeing that as the relation that God has always already related to his creation through to begin with; as the ‘first Word’ (cf. Gen. 1.1 / Jn. 1.1). We can all agree that God is incomposite and in that sense ‘untouched’ by his creation, but at the same time we don’t want to soften this (as I believe Aquinas does) in order to think a way for the gap to be bridged, in regard to knowledge of this Simple God, by bridging our apprehension of Him through an intact capacity within an abstract humanity; a humanity that isn’t grounded in the archetypal humanity of God in Jesus Christ.

By the way: to think Simplicity from the ‘Grace-alone-frame’ does things. It implicates a discussion on impassibility/passibility etc.

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 120 [emphasis mine].

[2] Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes, 70-1.

When thinking of the Trinity people are often thrown into a quandary, and rightly so. The reality of God is an ineffable ultimate sort of reality that becomes slippery to the inquiring mind. Many, and rightly, caution that the mysterium trinitatis is something more to be adored than parsed and ransacked for intellectual coherence. It is true that the Trinity is ultimately a mystery, but the very fact that we can even use language like ‘trinity’ indicates that there is some level of intelligibility to this grand reality. As the tradition has illumined for the inquiring hearts and minds of the church, it is possible even to develop a grammar for speaking of God’s Triune life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Of course, all of these things are possible only because the impossible has been made possible by God’s choice for us in Christ to make himself known from the ontological inside out in the assumptio carnis (assumption of flesh). As such as Christians we do indeed think God as he has desired to be thought and experienced as filial Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

John Webster as he is attempting to offer a properly ordered treatment on a doctrine of creation dogmatically grounds his development in a doctrine of God; more focused, in God’s life as Triune. As he develops his thinking he offers four hallmarks that might be said of God in his inner life as that is given as gift in extra mode in his Self-revelation. He writes at length:

God’s life in himself is the perfect, still and eternal movement in which the Father generates the Son and together with the Son breathes the Spirit. Generation and spiration ­ the two ‘emanations’ or processions in which we may discern the personal modes of the one God ­ are the manner in which God is limitlessly abundant life, reciprocity and ‘ineffable mutual delight’. Of these internal works, a number of things may be said, all of which are (ectypal) indications of the unfathomable depth and originality of the triune God from which there flows his presence to creatures as their maker, reconciler, and perfecter. (a) God’s ad intra works are intrinsic, their term remaining within the subject of the action (this, over against-for example-Arian ideas that the Father’s generation of the Son is a transitive act, a work like creation, terminating in an object outside God, whereas generation and creation are properly speaking entirely different kinds of divine acts. (b) God’s ad intra works are constitutive, not accidental, activities. They are not ‘voluntary’ in the sense of enacting a decision behind which there lies an agent who might have willed to act otherwise: there is no Father ‘behind’ the generation of the Son, no Father and Son ‘behind’ the breathing of the Spirit (relations of origin are eternal, not sequential). In this sense, therefore, God’s immanent activities are ‘necessary’, not by external compulsion but by absolute or natural necessity: these activities are what it is for God to be God. (c) God’s ad intra activities are unceasing, not temporal or transient. They are not an act of self-constitution or self-causation (talk of God as causa sui makes no sense); they effect no alteration or modification of the godhead; they are not productive activities which might be conceived as finished. (d) God’s ad intra activities require us to speak of distinctions between the persons of the godhead. These distinctions are various. The persons are distinguished by origin (the Son is generated by the Father, but not the Father by the Son; the Spirit proceeds from Father and Son, but not they from him); they are distinguished by the order of the relations of origin which make it possible to speak of the first, second and third persons of the Trinity (though not thereby  to suggest temporal priority and posteriority or descending degrees of glory); they are, accordingly, distinguished by the order and mode of their immanent operations, which repeat the order and mode of their personal existence: the Father acts a nullo, the Son acts a Patre, the Spirit ab utroque ­ though not, of course, at cost to the common aseity in which each person is and acts.[1]

Important points about generation, aseity, and how the persons relate in oneness and threeness threeness and oneness (de Deo uno de Deo trino). We do see a commitment on Webster’s part to the filioque and the Western tradition, but we won’t engage with that now. More important, for my eyes, is his emphasizing of there ‘being no God behind the back of the Father or the Son or the Spirit’, a point us Torranceans and Barthians are fans of in heightened ways. We see Webster contradict the sort of post-metaphysical conception that some attribute to Barth’s theology; i.e. the idea that God’s ‘being is in becoming’, or for what Hunsinger calls the ‘revisionist Barth’ that God constitutes his being in his becoming in the incarnation (more pointedly: the resurrection). Instead Webster emphasizes the catholic view of God’s antecedent life as the ground of what is expressed and given in the outer life of the economy; we see Webster avoiding any sort of confusion between processions in the inner life with the missions given in the outer life.

These are all important points to emphasize when thinking God. Even though we have supposedly passed through a Trinitarian renaissance in Christian theology (Barth being one of its most important initiators) we might scratch our heads at the continued dereliction of thought of many, particularly within the realms of Protestant theology. We might think of someone like Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, or Owen Strachan and their eternal functional subordinationism or eternal submission of the Son to the Father. And now we have moved beyond, supposedly, the Trinitarian renaissance and have come to a point, according to Katherine Sonderegger et al. where God’s singularity needs to take precedence to help extinguish the relative emphasis on his multiplicity that has apparently obtained because of modern thinkers like Barth. It is interesting, really, because even Webster himself as a result of his turn to Aquinas et al. seems to want to correct the trinitarian excesses that even he had given himself over to in his early years with Barth and Jüngel. Much of Webster’s desire to correct has more to do with prolegomena or method when it comes to thinking God rather than a simple material correction in regard to a doctrine of God; when we come to that, as we have in the quote above, what we find is a Webster who is still a buddy of the ‘textual Barth’, as Hunsinger calls him.

Trinitarian theology is alive and well with many interesting trends and threads still fluttering in the minds and hearts of those who care. The Trinity matters because God matters. For the Christian there is no generic understanding of who God is; for the Christian God is necessarily Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and this reality, his persons-in-relation are the basis of his oneness, just as his oneness is the basis of his persons. When we get sidelined from the all-important reality of the Trinity, when we fail to emphasize that God is an eternal relation of love (i.e. self-giveness one for the other one in the other) precisely because he is a godhead who is personal, we end up constructing subsequent theologies that reflect whatever emphasis of God we hold dear. For an Evangelical Calvinist, as myself, understanding that God is Father by me entering that reality through the Son by the Spirit, means that the theology I do will always have a personalist and familial shape to it precisely because God in this frame just is Love.

 

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 89-90.

Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, Owen Strachan et al. are all proponents of what is called Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) or Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS) in regard to the Son’s relation to the Father. They claim to get this idea from biblical exegesis. But what is clear is that they actually get it from reading a prior socio-anthropological commitment into the Bible, as they see it, in support of their hard complementarianism as that relates to male-female relationships (particularly in the marriage bond). At a theological level, because they want to further bolster their socio-anthropological perspective, what they end up doing is conflating the economic reality of God’s triune life (ad extra) with God’s so called immanent life (ad intra); thus conflating processions and origin of relation with God’s missions as that is revealed in salvation-history. The result of this conflation (of collapsing the immanent into the economic tout court) is that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father, in the ESS view, and the result is that we end up with some form of subordinationist theology proper; whether that be akin to something like Arianism or Monarchianism or Tri-theism (pick your poison).

In contradistinction from the ESS proponents, and in line with orthodox and historic teaching (meaning with reference to the ecumenical church councils and the Trinitarian as well as the Christological grammar produced) John Webster offers some prudential counsel on why we should reject the ESS position and call it what it is: heresy (he doesn’t use this word, but I infer it from his lengthy treatment of this topic of which the following is only one point of many). Here is Webster speaking directly to the eternal generation of the Son, and how that precisely does not support any sort of eternal subordination of the Son to the Father but in point of fact actually grounds the missions of the God-head without collapsing or conflating the processions into the missions in absolute terms (i.e. it honors archetypal and ectypal knowledge of God).

No subordination of the Son is entailed by his generation by the Father. There is certainly active and passive in their relation: the Father begets, the Son does not, but has his personal subsistence by virtue of the Father’s act. But the passive generation attributed to the Son, his being generated, is no less an ontological perfection than the Father’s active generation. Once again, generation and consubstantiality support each other.

At a relatively straightforward level, generation does not involve the Father’s temporal priority over the Son, because eternal generation is not temporal beginning. Begetting is ‘above all “when” or ‘beyond the sphere of time’. The Son is from but not after the Father. But this opens into a larger point about the Son’s perfect deity. In being generated by the Father, Hilary tells us, the Son retains ‘the fullness of that Godhead from which and in which he was born as true and infinite and perfect God’. This extends a point made earlier, namely that the relation unbegotten:begotten is of a different order from the relation creator:creature, since begetting is not making. The extension consists in denying the identity of being unbegotten with the divine essence. Gregory of Nazianzen pushes the point against opponents who claim that ‘if the Son is the same as the Father in respect of essence, then if the Father is unbegotten, the Son must be so likewise’. ‘Quite so’, he says, ‘if the essence of God consists in being unbegotten’. But it does not: ‘Unbegotten is not a synonym of God’. Unbegottenness is in fact the personal characteristic of the Father, not a property of the common divine essence; and so the Son’s being begotten does not exclude him from deity.

Using a slightly different idiom, Aquinas argues that to speak of the Father as principle (principium) is not to think of him as superordinate over the other two persons for principle means ‘not priority but simply origin’. This means that it is proper to speak of the unregenerate Father as ‘a principle not from a principle’, and of the Son as ‘a principle from a principle’ by virtue of his generation, without disturbing the eternal co-equality of Father and Son. In the terminology of post-Reformation divinity, the Son is still autotheos. He is this, not in respect of his person (which he has from the Father) but in respect of the common aseity which he has as a sharer in the one divine essence. The Father is a se in his person (as the principium of the triune life); the Son is a se only in his divine essence. ‘The Son is God from himself although not the Son from himself.’

In terms of trinitarian doctrine, this affirmation that begottenness is a divine perfection offers protection against what Tom Weinandy has called ‘emanationist sequentialism’: origin and order in the triune life are not a matter of ‘priority, precedence and sequence’. There is a proper reciprocity between Father and Son, in which the Father’s personal character as Father is confirmed and glorified by the Son. Certainly, the Father is a nemine, from no one; but he is not solitary, for he is the eternal Father of the eternal Son, and so ‘the Father is glorified through the Son when men recognise that he is Father of a Son so divine.’ In Christological terms, it reinforces the core conviction of Nicaea, that the ‘ek’ in ‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God’ does not alienate the Son from the life of God, and that the Son’s coming down from heaven is truly the presence of the perfect God.[1]

In light of such sustained consideration one wonders how the evangelical contingent of ESS or EFS proponents can continue to live life unrepentant. I don’t expect them to repent, even if they were to read such eloquent consideration of such a beautiful doctrine as we find in the eternal generation of the Son in his utter begotteness. The unfortunate thing is that the evangelical’s commitment to constructing cultural idols (complementarianism, egalitarianism, etc.) is allowed to shape the conclusions of their biblical exegetical projects; which then makes their projects eisegetical. This is unfortunate because such voices have large places in the broader mainstream of the evangelical churches across North America and beyond.

You might be wondering why this ultimately matters. Because Christians are people of the truth, and we want to make sure the God we worship is the God Self-revealed in Jesus Christ (i.e. working out the inner-logical reality of that as far as we can) rather than one constructed upon social or other whims that end up hybridizing him thus turning him into a human projection rather than the God of God who he is for us.

I think many of these EFS proponents think they have out-lasted the social media or blog cycle, as far as attention span. Nope, some of us are still watching; we see you, and continue to call you to repentance. You are living in doctrinal sin, and thus have a root of theological sinfulness fomenting your life and ministries to and for others; and even for yourselves. We are still watching, and my five-hundred readers will continue to be made aware of your intentional sinfulness when it comes to this most important doctrinal consideration. So I say again: Repent!

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1 God And The Works Of God (London-New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), Loc 839, 848, 857, 866 kindle version.

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Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

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A Little Thomas Torrance

“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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