On a Christ Conditioned Conception of Divine Aseity

I want to reflect a bit on Divine Aseity. I just recently wrote on Facebook “God’s aseity has been given a face in Jesus Christ.” As I was at work under the stars (I work for the railroad as a switchman/remote control locomotive operator), as I am oft to do, like the Psalmist I looked up and thought “what is man that thou art mindful of Him, Oh LORD?” As I was gazing at the blackened sky bejeweled with the sparkling stars here and there, my thought progressed further; as it often does. The immensity of the heavens above with its embassies of light served as the source of deep reflection about the vastness, indeed, the ineffableness of the living God. It led me to ponder God’s a se life. When I think about Divine Aseity it clearly comes from a particular vantage point; it is conditioned by my relationship to God through His Self-revelation of Himself for me in Jesus Christ. So, I don’t think of divine aseity out of an abstraction, but instead I do so from within a dialogical framework that gives me great confidence to pursue the depths of my God with vigor of the sort that finally can only break off into doxological upheaval of the soul. This is what happened last night. Divine Aseity used to cause me some serious mental and intellectual angst. If we attempt to think God, particularly about His inner-life, from purely rationalist opera, we will go mad. Nevertheless, from within the dialogical framework I’ve been given through God in Christ, there is a Spirit formed capacity to think about such things without fully being overcome by the ends of our minds.

The thought that staggers me most is that God is an eternally self-existent being. We can only fully appreciate that, insofar as we can, from a posture of humility and the recognition that we are merely creatures. In other words, if we attempt to think about divine aseity from a purely isolated and self-possessed incurved self, we will either go mad or we will simply reject the concept itself in order to preserve our own sense of self-divinity. More positively though, it is this thought of aseity that puts me in my place, and allows me to think rightly about where I stand in the economy of God’s ordered creation. But it is, for me, at least when I contemplate as I was, to attempt to come to the point that my puny little mind is absolutely blown to smithereens by the fact that God has just always been. Even as I type this my mind starts to do circles. As creatures we have no analogy for conceptualizing a being such as God; all we have, clearly, is our human perspective. Our human perspective, of course, is bounded by space, time, and our physical-mental bodies; as such, to attempt to contemplate how there could be a being that just has always been is not something even remotely conceivable. And yet, as Christians, we know that this is the reality.

What I am wanting to press is the idea of the utter immensity of God. But I am wanting to do that in such a way that there is an existential sense of awe that overcomes us as we attempt to contemplate the reality of God’s aseity; as we attempt to reflect upon the reality that God just is. But then I am also wanting to provide an end to any sort of abstract reflection about this, and, as I noted previously, I want to emphasize how God’s aseity, for the Christian, becomes a personal and dialogical source of worship as it is ‘faced’ in Jesus Christ. I am hoping to point out that my view towards aseity only really has any gravitas just at the point that I by the Spirit call Jesus Lord (cf. I Cor 12.3). It is within this relational and Triune nexus that I have the wherewithal to really even contemplate God’s aseity to begin with. It is here that the rationalist loop, or the philosophical knot is contravened as it is confronted by the reality that there isn’t ultimately an abstract sense of God’s aseity to begin with. In other words, for the Christian, our only knowledge of God’s inner-life, and His a se life, comes from His outer life, or ad extra life, as that is given for us in the elect humanity of Jesus Christ. It is because I am in concrete relationship with the living God, through the risen Christ, that I am forced to seriously contemplate the mysterium tremendum, and ineffable ultimacy that God just is. So, my contemplation of God’s aseity is never an unpopulated contemplation that is bereft of God’s personal voice for me; to the contrary, my contemplation of God’s inner and a se life is only ever come to precisely because this God, this God of eternal Life, has confronted me as my Father, as I’ve become co-heir with the Son, by the grace of adoption, through this very eternal Life that I can only push up against at the very nether reaches of my mind’s eye.

Hopefully what I have just written has some sort of coherence to it. It is simply a bloggy reflection, clearly, of a huge reality that cannot be fully grasped; or even partially. But what I’m hoping is coming through is the realization that, as Rahner emphasized, God’s immanent Triune Life is His economic Triune Life as revealed and understood through participation and union with Jesus Christ. I am hoping that a doctrine like aseity, at least from my point of view, is only something that the Christian can only genuinely have knowledge of just because they are a Christian. And I want to impress this point, because I think we need to have our minds properly mortified by the conditioning that can only come through the repentant thinking that Christ has accomplished for us before the Father. In other words, as Christians, we are immediately invited into the banqueting table of mind-blowing realities, but never in such a way that those realities have any reality outside of their givenness for us in Christ. If this is true, even the doctrine of aseity can only have a Christ concentration to it. So, while we’re having our minds blown by concentrating on God’s immensity, we will never really be doing that outwith a personal dialogical frame wherein we are talking with and praising this same God we are being pushed up against. This is the telos or purpose of being pushed up against the ineffability of God; it puts us in our place, by pushing us to the ground in a posture of utter worship and undoness before a Holy God, who is our Father, Brother, and Comforter.

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The Ordered Life of God as The Ground for the Ordered Life of the World: The Doctrine of the Primacy of Christ

To be a believer in an unbelieving world, can at points, become a draining prospect; depending upon the level the Christian attempts to live out ‘their faith’ in confrontation of other’s un-faith. There is a spiritual warfare occurring all around us that unless we press into our faith as Christians, we will not become aware of. This warfare occurs at various levels of society and interpersonal dynamics, but its principled reality remains the same: i.e. the kingdom of darkness is constantly seeking to unfurl the invading reality of the Kingdom of the Son of His love (cf. Col. 1.13). But it is just this; the Kingdom of God in Christ (KGC) is indeed an invading reality that the kingdom of darkness cannot possess. The KGC is not collapsed into the materiality (not that materiality is inherently evil, just the opposite in the KGC) of this world (as the kingdom of darkness is); instead the KGC constantly breaks into this world and recreates it moment by moment by the Grace of Christ as its inner-reality and source. The Grace of God cannot be possessed by the kingdom of darkness, insofar as the kingdom of darkness has already been concluded by the ultimacy of God’s invasion in Christ; as God in Christ triumphed over the devil and his minions making a public spectacle of them through His cross, burial, resurrection, ascension and ultimately second coming. The KGC is in fact the extension of God’s dominion as primally realized in the eschatos of His inner life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; in other words, the KGC is God’s telos for the created order, and as such is not ‘under’ the dominion of the evil one, but instead is under the dominion of God’s a se life as the fundamentum of all that is.

All that was just noted is corollary with the Scotist doctrine known as the Primacy of Jesus Christ. According to the Apostle Paul,

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. 21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.[1]

David Fergusson gives us greater insight into this doctrine as he writes,

In the prologue to John’s Gospel the Word (Logos) of God is the one by whom and through whom the world is created. This Word which is made present to Israel becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ. In this cosmic Christology, the significance of Jesus is understood with respect to the origin and purpose of the created order. Already in Paul’s writing and elsewhere in the New Testament epistles, we find similar cosmic themes (e.g. 1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:15-20, Heb. 1:1-4). By describing creation as Christ-centred, these passages offer two related trajectories of thought. First, the origin and final purpose of the cosmos is disclosed with the coming of Christ into the world and his resurrection from the dead. Second, the significance of Christ is maximally understood reference to his creative and redeeming power throughout the created universe. Writers at different periods in the history of the church would later use this cosmic Christology to describe the appearance of the incarnate Christ as the crowning moment of history. No longer understood merely as an emergency measure to counteract the effects of sin and evil, the incarnation was the fulfillment of an eternal purpose. The world was made so that Christ might be born.This is captured in Karl Barth’s dictum that creation is ‘the external basis of the covenant’ (Barth 1958: 94).[2]

The world order has no order without Christ as its reality. In order for there to be order in this world, this world must be ordered by the Great Orderer of all reality, who is God. Without this reconciliation, between God and humanity accomplished in the hypostatic union of God and humanity in Christ, the world will only experience the waywardness of a world that has been judged. And yet the world, by definition, will repudiate God’s judgment and attempt to make ‘a life’ out of the world system that has no life in it; not in and from its old fallen order. To be in Christ is to be in the ordered life that God is in HisSelf as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We see an origin of relation in God’s inner life as revealed in the Son, and we participate in and from that ordered life insofar as we call Jesus, Lord. But this world does not call Jesus, Lord; as such they can only experience the dregs of a world that has been driven into the nothingness that it is. But the world loves this nothingness rather than the somethingness of God’s life, thus heaping a world of pain and suffering upon itself with no hope. A tragedy I seek to bear witness against.

 

 

[1] Colossians 1, ESV.

[2] David Fergusson, “Creation, in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance, 76-7.

The Holy Trinity in Intrarelation as the Divine Monarchia: Attending to the Fatherhood of God as Deifier: The Torrancean Solution

Is the person of Father the source of the Godhead, or is the Godhead (the Divine Monarxia) in intratrinitarian relation the ground of who God is (think perichoresis)? These are technical questions, but ones that have significant theological and ecumenical implications; not to mention fiduciary relevance vis-à-vis the Evangel. Thomas Torrance felt the weight of these questions very acutely, and attempted to address them with heft; particularly as he undertook his dialogue with the Orthodox Church, precisely orbiting around this locus. Indeed, it was Torrance’s response to the above questions wherein he offers one of his most definitive contributions to the theological landscape of the 20th century.

As a way into this I wanted to refer us to John Zizioulas and his response to the questions as I have presented them. Zizioulas thinks from a decidedly Greek Orthodox perspective, and one that is not uncontroversial in his own quarters. Zizioulas is also a contemporary of, and interlocutor to Torrance. As such, referring to Zizioulas makes him that much more significant to what we will be visiting in Torrance’s offering. Here is a key quote from Zizioulas that jumps us directly into this important squabble:

Among the Greek Fathers the unity of God, the one God, and the ontological ‘principle’ or ‘cause’ of the being and life of God does not consist in the one substance of God but in the hypostasis, that is the person of the Father. The one God is not the one substance but the Father, who is the ‘cause’ both of the generation of the Son and of the procession of the Spirit. Consequently, the ontological ‘principle’ of God is traced back, once again, to the person. Thus when we say that God ‘is’ we do not bind the personal freedom of God . . . but we ascribe the being of God to His personal freedom. In a more analytical way this means that God, as Father and not as substance, perpetually confirms through “being” His free will to exist . . .Thus God as person – as the hypostasis of the Father – makes the one divine substance to be that which it is: the One God.[1]

Here Zizioulas seeks, among other things, to inject a notion of relationality into the Godhead, and the Triune Life that is often betrayed by the dominating Western tradition that works with concepts like ‘substance’ and unity rather than ‘person’ and multiplicity as the bases for thinking ‘who’ God is. One problem that might stand out quite immediately, for the perceptive reader of Zizioulas, is the concern that ‘subordination’ is given prominence in Zizioulas’ attempt to ground the ‘source’ of Divine Monarxia in the personal agency of the Father; as if God, at an ontological level, reduces to the person of the Father, making the ‘generation’ of the Son and the Holy Spirit subsidiary to the “Father’s Monarchy.” Indeed, this is a critique that is often levied at the Cappadocians in particular, at least when it comes to this issue; of which, Zizioulas can be seen as a modern iteration (with his own innovative constructions in play).

I only introduce us, very briefly, to Zizioulas in an attempt to problematize things, with the hope of allowing Torrance’s own innovative work to provide a sort of denouement to Zizioulas’ et al. presentation. Full disclosure: I do think Zizioulas’ presentation, while imaginative, ends up being problematic for precisely the sort of subordinationism that he has been criticized for presenting. While his aims are noble, his means to reaching those aims, in my view, fail. This is where Torrance’s own approach is so rich for consideration. I think bringing up Zizioulas is apropos, because I think he identifies a real problem—the de-‘personalization’ of God—but then, again, does not offer an alternative that ultimately reaches the sort of orthodox heights that I’d like to see. Torrance, on the other hand, while also recognizing the same ‘problem’ that Zizioulas did, offers a very fruitful way forward, in my view, by thinking the ‘Monarchy’ from the three persons (hypostases) in intratrinitarian interpenetrating relation; thus avoiding the significant tinge of subordinationism that plagues Zizioulas’ work.

Here is Torrance at length:

This centering of divine unity upon the Person of the Father rather than upon the Being of the Father, with its implication that the Person of the Father is the Fount of Deity, was to introduce the ambiguity into the doctrine of the Trinity that gave rise to difficulties regarding the procession of the Spirit as well as of the Son which we shall consider later. At the moment, however, it is the problem of a distinction drawn by the Cappadocians between the wholly uncaused or underived Deity of the Father and the caused or derived Deity of the Son and of the Spirit, that we must consider. As Gregory Nazianzen, himself one of the Cappadocian theologians, pointed out, this implied a relation of superiority and inferiority or ‘degrees of Deity’ in the Trinity, which is quite unacceptable, for ‘to subordinate any of the three Divine Persons is to overthrow the Trinity’. He was followed in this judgment by Cyril of Alexandria who, like Athanasius his theological guide, would have nothing to do with a generic concept of the divine οὐσία, or with causal and/or subordinationist relations within the Holy Trinity.

It is at this very point that the introduction of the concept of perichoresis proved of decisive importance. It ruled out any notion of a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ or of degrees of Deity and set the doctrine of the Trinity back again on the basis laid for it by Athanasius in terms of the coinherent relations and undivided wholeness in which each Person is a ‘whole of a whole’, while nevertheless gathering up and reinforcing the strong hypostatic and intensely personal distinctions within the Trinity which the Cappadocian theologians had developed so fruitfully especially for spiritual life and worship. This perichoretic understanding of the Trinity had the effect of restoring the full doctrine of the Fatherhood of God without importing any element of subordinationism into the hypostatic interrelations between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and at the same time of restoring the biblical, Nicene and Athanasian conception of the one Being or Oὐσία of Godas intrinsically and completely personal. Moreover, it ruled out of consideration any conception of the trinitarian relations arising out of a prior unity, and any conception of a unity deriving from the underived Person of the Father. In the perichoretic Communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who are the one Being of God, Unity and Trinity, Trinity and Unity mutually permeate and actively pass into one another.

When we consider the order of the three Persons in this perichoretic way we do indeed think of the Father as first precisely as Father, but not as the Deifier of the Son and the Spirit. Thus while we think of the Father within the Trinity as the Principle or Αρχή of Deity (in the sense of Monarchia not restricted to one Person, which we shall consider shortly), that is not to be taken to mean that he is the Source (Αρχή) or Cause (Αιτία) of the divine Being (το είναι) of the Son and the Spirit, but in respect simply of his being Unoriginate of Father, or expressed negatively, in respect of his not being a Son, although all that the Son has the Father has except Sonship. This does not derogate from the Deity of the Son or of the Spirit, any more than it violates the real distinctions within the Triune Being of God, so that no room is left for either a Sabellian modalism or an Arian subordinationism in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The statement of Jesus, ‘My Father is greater than I’, is to be interpreted not ontologically but soteriologically, or ‘economically (oἰκονομικός)’, as Gregory Nazianzen, Cyril of Alexandria and Augustine all understood it. In other words, the subjection of Christ to the Father in his incarnate economy as the suffering and obedient Servant cannot be read back into the eternal hypostatic relations and distinctions subsisting in the Holy Trinity. The mediatorial office of Christ, as Calvin once expressed it, does not detract from his divine Majesty. Since no distinction between underived Deity and derived Deity is tenable, there can be no thought of one Person being ontologically or divinely prior to another subsequent to another. Hence while the Father in virtue of his Fatherhood is first in order, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit eternally coexist as three fully co-equal Persons in a perichoretic togetherness and in-each-otherness in such a way that, in accordance with the particular aspect of divine revelation and salvation immediately in view, as in the New Testament Scriptures, there may be an appropriate variation in the trinitarian order from the given in Baptism, as we find in the benediction, ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ Nevertheless both Athanasius and Basil counselled the Church to keep to the order of the divine Persons given in Holy Baptism, if only to counter the damaging heresy of Sabellianism.[2]

Torrance’s move is to make the ‘being’ of the Father rather than the ‘person’ the reality of the Monarchia. In this sense, it can be meaningfully said, for Torrance, that the Divine Monarxia is indeed, the Holy Trinity lived in co-inhering eternal Life. We can see Torrance’s theo-logic on display, and the way he, ‘classically’, relates the so called ontological Trinity (ad intra) to the economic (ad extra); this becomes a key point for Torrance. It allows him to think God’s inner-life from the economy, and follow the Rhanerian axiom of the ‘Economic Trinity is the Ontological’, while not collapsing the processions into the missions of God. For Torrance there is an antecedent Life of God, but of course we only have access to that through the evangelical life of Jesus Christ; indeed, as He is Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit.

This way of Torrance’s makes the most sense to me. There seems to be some sort of continued debate about this in certain sectors; particularly online in the theological online world. I commend to you Torrance’s solution on this ostensible problem, and hope it allows you to find shalom for your souls and minds.

 

[1] Zizioulas, Being as Communion, 40–41 cited by Nikolaos Asproulis, “T. F. Torrance and John Zizioulas On The Divine Monarchia: The Cappadocian Background And The Neo-Cappadocian Solution,” Participatio Journal (Vol. 4), 2013: 174.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 179-80.

Knowledge of God and His Holiness Brings Knowledge of Self: Learning How to Live a Counter-Cultural Life from the Culture of Heaven

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

‘But this Father of His is God.’: The Evangelical Mind and Its Lacuna

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.

Contradicting EFS, Social Trinitarianisms, and TriTheisms: Thinking of God as One and Three Three in One

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.

The Postmetaphysical God: Corrected by Thomas F. Torrance

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.

Augustine, Barth, Time, Eternity, Timelessness, Grace, Election, Human Agency: Small Matters

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.

Retrieving the Modern Conception of God’s Being-in-Becoming For the Sake of the Church; For the Sake of Orthodoxy and Biblical Faithfulness

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.