What is Love? The Triune Reality versus Culturally Constructed Conceptions of Divine Love

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

God is He who in His Son Jesus Christ loves all His children, in His children all men, and in men His whole creation. God’s being is His loving. He is all that He is as the One who loves. All His perfections are the perfections of His love. Since our knowledge of God is grounded in His revelation in Jesus Christ and remains bound up with it, we cannot begin elsewhere—if we are now to consider and state in detail and in order who and what God is—than with the consideration of His love.[2]

Our salvation is not the business of Christ alone but the whole Godhead is interested in it deeply, so deeply, that you cannot say, who loves it most, or likes it most. The Father is the very fountain of it, his love is the spring of all—“God so loved the world that he hath sent his Son.” Christ hath not purchased that eternal love to us, but it is rather the gift of eternal love . . . Whoever thou be that wouldst flee to God for mercy, do it in confidence. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are ready to welcome thee, all of one mind to shut out none, to cast out none. But to speak properly, it is but one love, one will, one council, and purpose in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, for these Three are One, and not only agree in One, they are One, and what one loves and purposes, all love and purpose.[3]

This is a brief post about God’s love, and God as love. In light of the Royal Wedding and Bishop Michael Curry’s homily on love, I thought it would be apropos to dovetail with that. Beyond that, I have become concerned with how love is being appealed to by mostly younger Christians (and I mean generationally) within the broader evangelical Christian complex. I am already out of time for this post, so let me bring it to a close.

The reality is that God is love indeed; that his singular life is shaped by the threeness of self-giveness one for the other, and one in the other. As this is revealed for us in the economy of God’s life of grace and salvation what becomes clear is that this life of love is one that is constrained by a humiliation of self-sacrifice and place for the other more than place for the self (which is where the self gains its definition). But the sacrifice, the self-for-the-other-in-the-other, is also shaped by the otherness of holiness within which God has eternally inhabited as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is from within this ‘inner-reality’ or ‘antecedent-reality’ wherein his grace for us is given gravity; it is this place, this holiness wherein love is given its order and “delimitation.” In other words, while love is by Trinitarian definition, the mode of giving one for the other from the other for the one, within this unique and strangeness (relative to the world’s conception of ‘love’) of God’s life there is an alien reality to love that this world cannot define it can only be given. This militates the type of ‘love’ that so many Christians these days are appealing to. They use the language of love without giving it definition, without the propitiation of the cross of Christ; without the utter vulnerability and brutality entailed by the type of love that defines God’s life of self-givenness one for the other the other for the one. I would implore Christians to recognize that God’s love cannot be man-handled by us as based upon social and self projections upon what we construct as the Divine. Nein. God’s love is his for us, and his from himself; he has made clear what that entails, inclusive of his justice, holiness, wrath, and judgment in the Son enfleshed. We must start our thinking of God’s love from this inimically Triune reality and allow that to condition the way we think love for God and love for our neighbor. To allow culturally constructed conceptions of love to dominant our thinking and activities will only result in our own demise.

 

[1] I John 4.7-10, NASB.

[2] Barth, CD II/1, 351.

[3] Binning, The Works of Hugh Binning (1735 edn.), as cited in Torrance, Scottish Theology, 78–79.

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‘Thy Word is Truth, Sanctify Them by Thy Word’: Reading Scripture Theologically Rather than as Nature Lovers

My last post has highlighted what it looks like when a hermeneutic isn’t explicitly or intentionally related to a genuinely Christian reading of Holy Scripture. The results of engaging in biblical interpretation in this way allows for an un-tetheredness from the reality of the text of Scripture which allows the interpreter to impose whatever their chosen flavor of hermeneutic or philosophy might be (i.e. something like a reader response approach to Scripture wherein cultural fluctuations, and personal predispositions determine the way the text is read and understood).

In contrast to this John Webster offers an alternative (and historical) treatment and ontology of Holy Scripture wherein Scripture’s theological reality—the reality of the triune life as revealed in Christ—is given the regulative power it ought to have for Christians. You will note, starting a reading and reception of Scripture this way recognizes from the get go that the Bible comes couched within its own explicitly framed confessional position wherein Christ and the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the ‘domain’ wherein Scripture finds its orientation and thus meaning. In other words, to approach Scripture this way is to do so with the full recognition that we as Christians are determined to be, as a people, by the inner depth reality of Scripture itself. What this does is to give the keys (i.e. the authority) to the reality of Scripture to the Giver of Scripture; it is to recognize that Scripture is a work of God and that God’s work cannot, and shan’t not, be torn asunder from the person of God’s life in Christ. As such when we read Scripture it is not an epistemological source-bed wherein an unentangled unSpirit filled person can simply enter in and read off a series of historical facts (or myths, whatever the case might be); no, to approach Scripture this way, through its Self-determined reality vis-à-vis God in Christ, means that the reader is entangled in the telos of Scripture; is enmeshed in an interpenetrative way with the reality of Scripture, such that Scripture, its reality, is reading us more than we are reading ‘it.’ This is why John Webster places Scripture in the realm not only of soteriology, but more pointedly in the frame of sanctification (Jn 17.17). Scripture isn’t ‘open’ to whatever mode, whatever way we want to fashion it; nein, Holy Scripture, is, for the Christian, the holy ground wherein the Christian engages in a dialogue with the living voice of God afresh and anew, and in that process is transformed from glory to glory (cf. II Cor. 3.18).

Stephen Fowl summarizes some of this for us as he offers a sketch of Webster’s theology of Scripture. Fowl writes, particularly engaging with Webster’s thought on how Scripture came to be read naturalistically rather than theologically:

This recognition becomes difficult to square with a doctrine of revelation if that doctrine is divorced from its subsidiary role in relation to the doctrine of God. As Webster argues, just such a divorce occurred in the history of modern theology. Rather than a doctrinal assertion related to God’s triune identity, theologians came to think of revelation as an epistemological category requiring philosophical rather than theological justification. “Understood in this dogmatically minimalistic way, language about revelation became a way of talking, not about the life-giving and loving presence of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Spirit’s power among the worshipping and witnessing assembly, but instead of an arcane process of causality whereby persons acquire knowledge through opaque, non-natural operations.” Once one moves in this direction it becomes easier to understand why some attempts to defend the divine nature of Scripture tend to focus their attention on establishing either the incorruptibility of the text or the benign nature of the processes by which the texts of Scripture come to us. The most extreme manifestation of this concern is found in those theories or doctrines of Scripture that require some form of divine dictation where the human authors of Scripture simply record the words the Spirit speaks to them.[1]

In other words, when philosophical epistemology becomes the warp and woof of a theological conceiving of a doctrine of Scripture, what is produced is some form or some emphasis upon the quality of Scripture itself (as an end in itself); i.e. inerrancy. What is lost in this endeavor is a proper focus on Scripture’s ontology; in other words, Scripture’s character and ‘place’ is lost when we fail to see it within the domain of God’s life in Christ, by way of its ordering, and instead we place it as a cipher between ourselves and God. Scripture in this case, when understood as an epistemological source, becomes an artifice of social analogizing rather than the holy ground that it actually is vis-à-vis God as its giver and speaker. Do you see the problem? God becomes the tail and we the dog who wags the tail; Scripture’s place is displaced to the point that it is contingent upon whatever philosophical program we want to impose upon it; whatever pet theological paradigm or hermeneutic we want to bring to it to enhance or degrade its inerrant properties. This should not be so.

Let us close with a quote from Webster that clarifies all of this that much more closely:

First, the reader is to be envisaged as within the hermeneutical situation as we have been attempting to portray it, not as transcending it or making it merely an object of will. The reader is an actor within a larger web of event and activities, supreme among which is God’s act in which God speaks God’s Word through the text of the Bible to the people of God, as he instructs them and teaches them in the way they should go. As a participant in this historical process, the reader is spoken to in the text. This speaking, and the hearing which it promotes, occurs as part of the drama which encloses human life in its totality, including human acts of reading and understanding: the drama of sin and its overcoming. Reading the Bible is an event in this history. It is therefore moral and spiritual and not merely cognitive or representational activity. Readers read, of course: figure things out as best they can, construe the text and its genre, try to discern its intentions whether professed or implied, place it historically and culturally — all this is what happens when the Bible is read also. But as this happens, there also happens the history of salvation; each reading act is also bound up within the dynamic of idolatry, repentance and resolute turning from sin which takes place when God’s Word addresses humanity. And it is this dynamic which is definitive of the Christian reader of the Bible.[2]

This represents the type of approach we will take if we read Scripture as it ought to be read; viz. theologically.

 

[1] Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 8 kindle.

[2] John Webster, “Hermeneutics in Modern Theology: Some Doctrinal Reflections,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 336.

Is God Really Immutable? If He Is, How Is He? Muller, Molnar, Barth

Divine immutability; it is sometimes thought of as a purely philosophical lens imposed upon the God revealed in Jesus Christ and Holy Scripture (think of people like Pinnock, Harnack, et al.). For some it has functioned very much so in this way. For others, like Richard Muller, he believes that the whence of immutability, from its classically Hellenic sources, has been transmogrophied by the Christian witness such that its good kernel has been retained while the flowery husk has been discarded. But what is a basic working definition of Divine immutability? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it this way:

For one thing, the Scriptural witness is not really so clearly on the side of divine real intrinsic change. Much that Scripture says of God is clearly metaphor. And it is not hard to show that Old Testament texts which ascribe change to God could be speaking metaphorically. As I note later, one can parse even the Incarnation in ways which avoid divine real or intrinsic change. Standard Western theism clearly excludes many sorts of change in God. Western theists deny that God can begin or cease to be. If God cannot, He is immutable with respect to existence. Nothing can gain or lose an essential property, for nothing can fail to have such a property. For Western theists, God is by nature a spirit, without body. If he is, God cannot change physically — he is physically immutable. So the Western God could at most change mentally- in knowledge, will, or affect. Further, Scripture amply supports the claim that God is perfect in knowledge, will, and affect. This perfection seems to rule out many sorts of mental change.[1]

The primary thing that stands out is ‘change,’ or lack thereof. Another attending issue is that of ‘movement,’ which might imply change; i.e. if God is made to respond by something that is a predicate of his life (e.g. something that is contingent upon him rather than vice versa). Richard Muller cites Lutheran theologian Johannes Quenstedt, and provides further theological elaboration thereby:

We can see the attempt to recuperate immutability, or to appropriate it in such a way that it just is corollary with the prima facie teaching of Holy Writ. Interestingly, at one level, Muller himself places Barth on the side of the immutabilitists before he launches into critique of Barth. Muller writes,

While this is interesting, and to the point, I think I’d rather hear from a Barth scholar, like Paul Molnar, as he details just exactly upon what basis Barth thinks God’s immutability from. It indeed coheres with the basic contours of the intentions of classic immutability (that God cannot be moved by something external to him), but then reifies in such a way that the affections of God are not just understood as metaphors or anthropopathisms, but instead as reflective of who God actually is in himself (in se). Here Molnar is responding to the ‘Barth Wars,’ indeed he is contributing to it contra Bruce McCormack’s et al. idea that God’s electing work precedes who God is as triune thus allowing creation itself to determine who God chooses to be for us in the incarnation (Deus incarnandus). This is the context from which I take this quote from Molnar (for full disclosure). For our purposes what shouldn’t be lost is how Barth’s conception of immutability and mutability (or not) function in his theology; I would suggest this is the better way forward. While retaining the important node that God does not change, what is forwarded within that reality is that God does indeed genuinely love and feel; because he wants to; because this is how we know him to be from his Self-revelation in the Son (Deus incarnatus). Molnar writes:

Because it has been said that Barth’s view of God’s freedom changed after CD II/2, it is imperative to note here that Barth wanted to break the spell of an idea of God that was either mutable or immutable in the sense that God could not humble himself in Jesus Christ but that in the “supreme exercise” of his essence he could, as the immutable (constant) God, accomplish reconciliation for us. Nonetheless, Barth insists even here, “It is not that it is part of His divine essence, and therefore necessary, to become and be the God of man, Himself man. That He wills to be and becomes and is this God, and as such man, takes place in His freedom. It is His own decree and act. Nor is there anything in the essence of man to make necessary this divine decree or act” (IV/2, p. 85). What, then, is the divine essence that remains unchanged in all of this, Barth asks? He says, “It is the free love, the omnipotent mercy, the holy patience of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And it is the God of this divine essence who has and maintains the initiative in this event. He is not, therefore, subject to any higher force when He gives Himself up to the lowliness of the human being of the Son of God” (IV/2, p. 86).[2]

We see, according to Molnar, how Barth negotiates his way through the dilemma that has been set up between God’s so called immutability and mutability. For Barth this dilemma really is no dilemma, instead it represents an occasion to creatively construct a way through this apparent morass that recognizes the biblical significance that God does indeed not ‘change,’ but then pushes forward through the usually Ramist ways of negotiating with this, and instead attempts to think these issues through a personalist lens that starts with the hypostasis of the eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ. What bubbles up from this exercise is that God’s triune love grounds the way Barth thinks about ‘how’ God moves; he concludes that God’s movement is Self-determined and located in Divine freedom to be who graciously chooses to be for the other; all implicates of who God is eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

[1] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed 04-23-2018.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 273 n. 14.

*The Muller quotes come from this essay.

The Prius of God’s Life IS God’s Life of Triune Personal Love: An Alternative Account of Predestination Referred to God’s Life

Predestination that shibboleth of Reformed theology; it has been shibboleth to me as well. Predestination is the idea that God arbitrarily elects particular people to eternal life, and chooses that others either remain (passive) reprobate or are (active) reprobate with no actual hope for eternal life. This approach to a God-world relation relies upon a philosophical theory of causation of the sort that we find in Aristotle’s theology; a theory of causation that relegates God’s relation to the world to a set of necessary commitments—primary of which is that God is the Unmoved Mover (e.g. impassibility; immuatability). Without getting into the details of what this theory of causation entails specifically I will refer us instead to the Westminster Confession of Faith’s (WCF) chapter three where it confesses what it thinks about a God-world relation in the doctrine of Predestination:

Chapter III

Of God’s Eternal Decree

I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. II. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions. III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death. IV. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished. V. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto; and all to the praise of His glorious grace. VI. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only. VII. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice. VIII. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel.[1]

For its time and place this might have been the best the Westminster Divines could do; viz. with the theological categories they had available to them—although that is contestable, given the reality that there were counter voices within the Reformed world at that time who emphasized a God of immediate personal love (think, Richard Sibbes). But we live in the 21st century, and time has passed; reflection has been undertaken; theological categories have developed; and I would suggest that the Gospel can be better for it. Thomas Torrance under the influence of Athanasius and Karl Barth (and Michael Polyani, Clerk Maxwell, Einstein et al.) offers an alternative account of Predestination wherein the reference is not individual people scattered throughout the annals of created history, but instead the reference is God’s life in Christ. In other words, Pre-destination, in Torrance’s theology, and Evangelical Calvinist theology after, refers to God’s life in Christ, his choice to be for the world and not against it, his prothesis grounded in who he is as eternal Triune love. For Torrance God’s life of love just is the inner-factor that grounds his choice to be Immanuel, God with us. This is counter the ad hoc choice of God we see orienting the doctrine of predestination in the theology of the Westminsterians; a choice that he makes based upon his secret will hidden in the recesses of his remote life that remains inaccessible (Deus absconditus) even with the revelation (Deus revelatus) of Godself in Christ. In other words, again as both Barth and Torrance would say, there is a ‘god behind the back of Jesus’ in the Westminsterian schema such that we aren’t ultimately sure of why God does what he does; only that he indeed does it. But this isn’t concordant with Holy Scripture or the reality it attests to in Jesus Christ. What we know is that God does what he does because he is love, of the sort that shapes his response to the human predicament by electing to be human, and giving his life in Christ for the sheep. What we know is that God acts in personal and intimately driven ways, filial ways, of the sort that inhere eternally between the Father and the Son by the fellowshipping love of the Holy Spirit. Place this up against the Westminsterian conception of God in the doctrine of predestination and see if it coheres.

Paul Molnar, as he develops Thomas Torrance’s theology (and Barth’s) of predestination offers a wonderful account of all that we have just been sketching. Let me offer, at length, his considerations, and commend them to you. As Evangelical Calvinists, what follows, by way of description of Torrance’s theology, is what shapes our own approach to a doctrine of Pre-destination.

The second important thing to notice is that Torrance insists that in Jesus Christ we are confronted with “the eternal decision of God’s eternal love. In Jesus Christ, therefore, eternal election has become temporal event.” But that means that election is not “some static act in a still point of eternity.” Rather it is “eternal pre-destination, moving out of its eternal prius into time as living act that from moment to moment confronts people in Jesus Christ.” Hence, “the ‘pre’ in predestination refers neither to a temporal nor to a logical prius, but simply to God Himself, the Eternal.” This is a vital insight. For Torrance, while we tend to think of eternity “as strung out in an infinite line with past, present, and future though without beginning and without end, in the form of an elongated circular time,” this must not lead us to suppose that there is a “worldly prius” in God, because that would introduce immediately a “logical one” as well. If and when predestination is brought within the compass of created time, then it would be thought of within the “compass of the temporal-causal series” and “interpreted in terms of cause and effect,” and this would necessarily lead to determinism, which is the very opposite of what is actually affirmed in the “pre” of predestination. Torrance says the “pre” in predestination, when rightly understood, is “the most vigorous protest against determinism” known to Christian theology. Since the “pre” in predestination does not refer to a “prius to anything here in space and time,” it cannot be construed as “the result of an inference from effect to first cause, or from relative to absolute, or to any world-principle.” Rather, because election is “in Jesus Christ,” the “pre” does not take election “out of time” but “grounds it in an act of the Eternal which we can only describe as ‘per se’ or ‘a se.’” That means it is grounded “in the personal relations of the Trinity” so that “because we know God to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we know the Will of God to be supremely Personal—and it is to that Will that predestination tells us our salvation is to be referred.”

But we can make that reference only “if that Will has first come among us and been made personally known. That has happened (ἐγένετο) in Christ, and in Him the act of predestination is seen to be the act of creative Grace in the communion of the Holy Spirit.” Election thus refers to God’s “choice or decision” and “guarantees to us the freedom of God. His sovereignty, His omnipotence is not one that acts arbitrarily, nor by necessity, but by personal decision. God is therefore no blind fate, no immanent force acting under the compulsion of some prius or unknown law within His being.” The importance of emphasizing choice here concerns the fact that election cannot involve any necessity without becoming immediately a form of determinism. Instead, election refers to God’s freedom “to break the bondage of a sinful world, and to bring Himself into personal relations with man”; election refers to a personal action from God’s side and from the human side. Hence it is an act that creates personal relations. While God freely creates our human personal relations, human freedom is “essentially dependent freedom,” while “the divine freedom is independent, ‘a se’ freedom; the freedom of the Creator as distinguished from the freedom of the creature.” In this connection Torrance describes election as “an act of love.” It means that “God has chosen us because He loves us, and the He loves us because He loves us.”

That may sound a bit strange. But it is loaded comment, because what Torrance means is that if we try to get behind this act of God’s love toward us to find a reason beyond the simple fact that God loves us because he does, we will end up turning God’s free love of us into a necessity in one way or another and thus once again compromise both divine and human freedom in the process. So Torrance insists,

The reason why God loves us is love. To give any other reason for love than love itself, whether it be a reason in God Himself, such as an election according to some divine prius that precedes Grace, or whether it be in man, is to deny love, to disrupt the Christian apprehension of God and to condemn the world to chaos! [Torrance, “Predestination in Christ,” 117]

Election is Christ the beloved Son of the Father, and the act of election in him is once and for all, a perfectum praesens, an eternal decision that is ever present. God’s eternal decision does not halt or come to rest at any particular point or result, but is dynamic, and ever takes the field in its identity with the living person of Chirst. [Torrance, “Predestination in Christ,” 117]

Hence it is “contemporary with us” and summons us to decision as to who we say he is. Here we must confront more directly the relationship between time and eternity. How exactly can one maintain that election is an eternal decision without reducing the eternal love between the Father and Son to the love of God enacted in the history of Jesus Christ for us? How can one maintain the strength of Torrance’s insight that creation and incarnation are new acts even for God without obviating the power contained in the assertion that Jesus Christ is the ever-present act of God’s electing love?[2]

Molnar leaves off with some questions that alert us to the discussion and critique he has been making in regard to a McCormackian reading of Barth’s theology, in particular. But that does not currently concern us. I wanted to share this very lengthy quote (and thus risk losing blog readers who typically won’t go beyond 1500 words) in order to provide insight into theology that I rarely see shared online; at least not in the context of Reformed theology. People need to know that Reformed theology is expansive, but they also need to appreciate that Christian theology in general isn’t ultimately about being able to align with that interpretive tradition, or this; but instead what we should really care about is whether or not what is being communicated is most proximate with the Gospel itself.

What I hope you have come to see is that God loves us because he just is, LOVE! I hope you can see that there is a way to think of soteriological issues from within the concrete revelation of God’s life in Jesus Christ; and that from that vantage point how we conceive of the God-world relation ought to be thought of in personal rather than abstract terms. Theological systems are often averse to thinking in personal and relational terms because they are afraid that this reduces God-thought to an existentialist frame of reference (oh no, not that!), or that it so subjectivizes God that theology becomes a form of anthropology (the boogeyman, Schleiermacher). But within the theologies of Barth, Torrance et al. what becomes apparent is that none of those fears are true. If we want to think about Predestination properly then we ought to think it from God’s Self-revelation itself; where the Son of the Father is the primary means by which we understand God to be—in other words in personal terms.

[1]Westminster Confession of Faith.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 202-05.

The Athanasian God of Love: He Hasn’t Always Been the Creator; But He Has Always Been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

I think an important reality to grasp when thinking about God’s relationship to us is that there is nothing in that relationship that is contingent upon us; it is all contingent upon who God is in himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This kicks against our natural inclinations, inclinations that remain present even after we are made alive by the Spirit in union with Christ’s humanity; we are still sinners, as a result we will continue to attempt to introduce ourselves into the ground of the relationship that inheres between ourselves and God. Indeed, this attempt will work its way into our theologies, and into the praxis that follows. Paul Molnar has been working against what he discerns as an attempt to ground God’s inner life in his outer life in the economy; this attempt, according to Molnar, has been made by folks like Bruce McCormack, Ben Myers, Kevin Hector, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Dafyyd Jones as each of these theologians have attempted to read the implications of Barth’s theology in rather creative, or constructive ways. The verities of this particular discussion get rather technical, and so for this blog post we will avoid such weeds; but I wanted to note some background in order to make sense of what I will be sharing from Molnar with reference to who God is for us in Christ and what that means in regard to creation and recreation. Most importantly, I simply want to highlight how God is love, and how that love is inimical to whom God is.

Paul Molnar writes the following in regard to who God is, and what that looks like in an Athanasian–Torrancean frame. Maybe after you read the quote some of what I shared above will make a little more sense. After the quote I will reflect more personally on how knowing that God is love makes a difference for me; and hopefully this reality will make a difference for you too.

At this point it would helpful to point out that much of the difficulty surrounding the issues discussed in the last chapter centers on how to relate God’s external and internal activities and on the proper understanding of the relationship between time and eternity. Following Thomas F. Torrance and Karl Barth, I have argued that there is and must be a priority of the Father/Son relation over the creator/creature relation because what God is toward us he is eternally in himself; and in his sovereign actions of love for us in his Word and Spirit, the eternal generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit cannot be confused with God’s actions as creator, reconciler, and redeemer. The ultimate indications of such a confusion would be any idea that the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit might be seen as the result of an act of will on God’s part. God freely willed to relate with us by creating us, reconciling us and redeeming us. But these actions are an overflow of his eternal love and glory, not in any emanationist sense, but as acts of will expressing God’s superabundance rather than any lack; thus they are not in any sense necessary to God. They are, as Torrance often said, acts of amazing grace.

Importantly, then, any idea that what God is toward us is in any sense constitutive of God’s eternal being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit would be a clear indication of the Origenist confusion of God’s internal and external relations. This is why, following Torrance especially, I have stressed that while God was eternally the Father he was not always creator, and that while God was always the Son he was not always incarnate. Hence, creation and incarnation must be seen as new actions, new even for God. There is a delicate balance that is required here because once the incarnation has taken place, it is impossible to disjoin Christ’s divinity and humanity; from then on he lives as the incarnate Word, and now he lives as the risen ascended Lord of history and interacts with us as the eternal high priest and as the Mediator in both his human and divine natures in virtue of the hypostatic union. It is just at this point in Christology where it is imperative, however, that one distinguish between God’s internal and external relations. Without this distinction in the eternal being of the Son will be thought to be changed or constituted in some sense by his human history. Yet, his human history is the history of God acting for us in the world as the reconciler without ceasing to be the Word through who God created the world and through whom God continues to uphold it in the power of his eternal Spirit. We have already seen that Athanasius insisted on the importance of this point by rejecting any idea that the Word came to exist by an act of will on the part of the Father.[1]

There is a lot going on here, but for our purposes what I want us to notice is that who God is, particularly as he is for us, is something that graciously flows from who he is first in his inner and eternal life. If we can grasp this we will find great stability, not in ourselves, but in who he is. Once we can accept this reality about God we can rest in his eternal life of triune love.

I think that we need to understand all of the above (and more!) so that we are not easily swayed by the winds of doctrine currently blowing around the church. We want to recognize as John does that ‘God is love,’ but we don’t want to work our ‘worldly’ conceptions of what that entails into God’s life; we want to allow God’s life to determine what his love looks like. It isn’t a sentimentalism or a God who is my teddy-bear that we after; instead we should want to submit ourselves to whatever and whomever God is. We can only accept this about who God is if we allow our thoughts to be shaped and reshaped by encounter with him in and through the humanity of Christ by the Holy Spirit; it is here where the type of ‘repentant thinking’ that Torrance was so concerned with will and can take place.

My broader concern is that God is not being presented to the evangelical churches this way; that God instead is being presented in a way where he comes with edges and performance based expectations that in fact he does not have. My concern is that a nomist (law) God, a Wyatt Earp God is who people are being introduced to, such that their understanding of him isn’t really based upon his Self-revelation itself, but instead upon a philosophical conception of God who operates in impersonal and decretive ways towards his creation, toward people.

So, on the one hand, we have the Progressive God, and on the other hand the Puritan God being given to the people. I want to suggest that this introduces conceptions of God into the mix that are not actually contingent upon who he actually is, but instead contingent upon who we have posited him to be; and this positing might be very organic and sophisticated in the way it attempts to imagine its way into how we think God, but in the end I do not believe these approaches, usually, are based upon God’s Self-determination of who he actually is for us from who he eternally and antecedently is in himself.

Once I realized this; once I realized that there was a way to think God from the way God has revealed himself to be in the Incarnation a real peace began to minister to my soul. I am well aware of the piety that many folks, both on the Progressive and Puritan sides have in regard to the way that they attempt to think God, but I don’t think piety is able to cover a multitude of sins; only God’s love can do that.

[1] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 187-88.

Revisiting Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) and the Significance of Theological Exegesis: A Post Prompted by Owen Strachan

Let me repurpose this post, which I originally posted on June 12, 2016, in the midst of the whole Eternal Functional Subordinationist (EFS) kerfuffle that happened back then. I say I wanted to repurpose this in the sense that I am reminded that this issue has really not gone away, nor has it genuinely been addressed by those involved (on the EFS side). I’m reminded of this as I’m a follower of Owen Strachan on Twitter; he’s been posting certain things of late that have to do with a doctrine of God and the Trinity. In particular Strachan was critical of my friend, Tom McCall’s Christianity Today article on the ‘dereliction cry’ of Jesus on the cross and what that suggests in regard to the relations inherent within the Triune life. At any rate, it seriously bothers me that Strachan thinks he’s in a position to correct someone who actually follows a historical orthodox doctrine of God (particularly when that comes to the issue of the eternal generation of the Son), when Strachan himself does not. I just recently read a blog post from someone else who seems to be suggesting that folks like Strachan, Grudem, Ware et al. in fact aren’t really as heretical on this as so many seem to think. This particular blogger is suggesting that in fact they simply are part of a long line of folks attempting to articulate something that is utterly mysterious and thus we should apparently read them with more generosity; I beg to differ (I’ll address that particular post at another time). Anyway, the following post gets into what’s at stake, and in particular how theological exegesis is the all important piece to this exegetical picture.

I am going to revisit the issue we addressed in the last post; in regard to the debate between those who affirm eternal functional subordination (EFS) in the Godhead, and those who do not (which would be the historic orthodox position). My last post was hitting on a particular point in regard to the problems associated with attempting to read God’s inner-life (in se) from a social analogy; i.e. using a hierarchical man/woman analogy to understand how the Father/Son relation works in the inner life of God. My last post was quickly conceived, and I had hoped to emphasize what I just highlighted (i.e. man/woman analogy)—which I think I did—and to alert folks to the fact that this debate is currently happening (at least in the theoblogosphere). It will be important (if you haven’t already) for you to read that first post of mine in order to engage better with this post; this post is going to jump right into the issues. We will have an introductory word, then the post will be broken into two sections: 1) Hermeneutics, 2) Dogmatics, Creed, and Tradition.

Warning: this post is going to be unusually long for a blog post; maybe 2000 or 3000 words. So instead of it taking you five minutes to read it might take you seven to eight minutes.

Introduction

Josh Malone, PhD (University of Aberdeen), professor at Moody Bible Institute-Spokane jumped into the fray, and provided this summative overview of what is at stake and what is going on in this debate. He writes:

… A few people have asked for clarification on what the EFS folks (Grudem, Ware, etc…) are saying, why it’s been called sub-Nicene, and why that matters. Briefly, the Creed of Nicaea (325) says Jesus is “the Son of God, begotten as only begotten of the Father, that is of the substance of the Father (ek tas ousias tou patros).” The language used affirms the Son’s generation from the Father, though it does not specify the “eternity” of this act. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381) develops that language further, stating the Son is “begotten of the Father before all worlds (pro pantōn tōn aiōnōn),” now explicating the eternity of this act. So it’s hard to deny the pro-Nicene formula simply states eternal generation as the ground for the claim that the Father-Son share the same nature (e.g. – homoousion), so both God, and that God has always been such. The EFS folks have long been critical about whether “eternal generation” itself is conceptually coherent and biblically accurate (see Grudem’s critique on the word monogenes in his ST). Rather than deny the creed itself, they have tended to argue that what the creed/tradition affirms is “equality” of essence and “difference” in person (which is more an abstraction of language developed by the Cappadocians in reality). Thus, they desire to reformulate personal distinction in the triune life along, purportedly, more biblical grounds – authority-submission. As they’ve done so (for more than a decade now), theologians have continued to question the coherence of this move: Can one materially deny the claims of the creed while claiming formal adherence? Further: Is there a clearer biblical argument for authority-submission over and against relations-of-origin (eternal generation, procession)? Finally: What does all this assume, and imply, about the relation between Creator/creation, Trinity/incarnation, and language about God. Whether one has the patience for the nuance of delving into the metaphysics of divine perfection, historically it’s pretty clear that what you say about the life of God matters for your doxology and practice. As some have noted, evangelicals have seemed far more concerned about soteriological agreement (we all can say: saved by grace thru faith in Christ) than theological agreement (we all think and speak about God in like manner). Historically, a fair case can be made that the latter has caused as many, perhaps more, problems in the church – and confusion in the doctrine of God more often than not is the root of confusion in soteriology.[1]

Hermeneutics

Note, Malone reinforces what we discussed in my prior post; i.e. he underscores the fact that a proper dogmatic order or taxis is very important for how we think about the God-world relation. Again, to reiterate, the EFS guys (Grudem, Ware, et al.) want to argue from say the occasionally given Epistles of the Apostle Paul (e.g. I Cor. 11)—as Malone also highlights i.e. the authority-submission nexus—and use “the Bible” and its revelatory capacity to read the Triune relation from an contextualized reading of certain passages in Scripture. I think what this points up pretty clearly is that this comes down to: 1) a theological methodology (prolegemonon), 2) a theory of revelation, 3) and an ontology of Scripture (which entails a hermeneutical theory), among other things. In other words, my gut, growing up as an evangelical (and still one, in a particular mode), is telling me that Grudem&co. are committed to a kind of naïve reading of Scripture that holds to the idea that Scripture itself can be read without prior theological commitments having any informing impact upon their exegetical conclusions. In other words, my guess (having read some of Grudem’s Systematic Theology, hearing him in person, and engaging with him in college classes) is that there is a kind of Enlightenment bifurcation between reading the Bible, and thinking confessionally or creedally (as the case may be). That Grudem&co. are committed to reading the Bible from a kind of nominalist/dualist viewpoint wherein history and providence are read away from each other rather than read towards each other. Matthew Levering captures it this way:

What happens, then, when Scripture is seen primarily as a linear-historical record of dates and places rather than as a providentially governed (revelatory) conversation with God in which the reader, within the doctrinal and sacramental matrix of the Church, is situated? John Webster points to the disjunction that appears between “history” and “theology” and remarks on the “complex legacy of dualism and nominalism in Western Christian theology, through which the sensible and intelligible relams, history and eternity, were thrust away from each other, and creaturely forms (language, action, institutions) denied any capacity to indicate the presence and activity of the transcendent God.” Similary, Lamb contrasts the signs or concepts that can be grasped by modern exegetical methods with the moral and intellectual virtues that are required for a true participatory knowledge and love the realities expressed by the signs or concepts. Lacking the framework of participatory knowledge and love, biblical exegesis is reduced to what Lamb calls “a ‘comparative textology’ à la Spinoza.” Only participatory knowledge and love, which both ground and flow from the reading practices of the Church, can really attain the biblical realities.[2]

My guess is that Grudem&co. are reading from “a comparative textology” rather than from what Levering calls participatory knowledge. In other words, the low-church evangelicalism which Grudem&co. inhabits, and the scriptura de nuda tradition that often is present in that type of tradition, provides a prohibitory view of the role of tradition in the interpretive process and reception of Holy Scripture. So Grudem&co., my guess would be, are resistant to the idea of a participatory approach to Scripture which has a robust view of tradition towards the interpretation of Scripture because it believes that God in Christ has always been providentially present in the teaching and explication of his truth and reality found in Scripture. This providential care would be found in the history of interpretation, which would certainly include the important ecumenical settlement and council of Nicea-Constantinople (381) which Malone mentions. These councils gave us the grammar of the Trinity, and even the category of eternal generation within the Divine Monarxia (Godhead). Grudem&co. want to challenge, or at least reify what the historic church has held (in regard to eternal ontological generation) by their interpretation of Scripture.

The problem here isn’t that they want to innovate and potentially re-work the tradition, the problem is that they want to move beyond, even jettison the tradition through their exegesis of particular passages of Scripture; and they want to do so based upon their desire to maintain a hard complementarianism in regard to gender relations, which itself is informing their exegetical conclusions. So they want their commitment to a theological position (i.e. complementarianism) to be conflated with God’s inner-life in order to give their theological position more heft; i.e. if gender relations can be tied into the very ‘essence’ of God’s inner-life, then who can argue with them (I think they think)? There is a lot of irony going on here; notice, Grudem&co. want to mitigate the role of tradition in their exegesis of Scripture, yet they are deeply committed to a theological tradition (i.e. complementarianism) which they are allowing to not only inform the way they are interpreting Scripture, but then by analogical extrapolation, using that interpretive conclusion to fundamentally inform and transform their understanding of God. They are so radically committed to their interpretive tradition (complementarianism) that they are willing to, in this latter day (relative to church history), jettison (de facto) the historic orthodox understanding of the church provided orientation by some ecumenical councils of the patristic church.

Dogmatics, Creeds, and Tradition

Darren Sumner, PhD (Aberdeen), professor of theology at Fuller Seminary, Northwest has responded to this “Trinity” kerfuffle as well. Sumner touches upon many salient points, including the hermeneutical issue; but the largest part of Darren’s critique gets into a theological critique with appeal to the history of interpretation (things Malone, in a summative form, touches upon as well). If you read Sumner’s excellent piece the dogmatic/creedal issues are covered quite well; it will make anything I write almost redundant (in an asymmetrical way, since the quality of what Darren has written exceeds what I will offer here). That said, you all (right now), need to head over to Darren’s post Some Observations On The ‘Eternal Functional Subordination’ Debate, and then once you do, head right back over here.

As Sumner quotes Bruce Ware:

As Son, the Son is always the Son of the Father and is so eternally. As Son of the Father, he is under the authority of his Father and seeks in all he does to act as the Agent of the Father’s will, working and doing all that the Father has purposed and designed for his Son to accomplish.[3]

What we see here is as clear of an affirmation of the problem that I think we can find in the so called EFS position. With the background information we already have it is clear from even this small quote what Ware is after. He clearly wants to use his reading of the eternal Father/Son relation in order to support his view of the man/woman-husband/wife relation. The irony of course (as we noted previously, and as Sumner helpfully highlights as well) is that before Ware ever got to the Father/Son relation he got there first from his understanding of the man/woman relation; i.e. that the woman (like the Son) is subordinate and under the authority of the husband (like the Father). Sumner is certainly right to point out that Ware is engaging in natural theology (as we pointed out in our first post as well), and even to the point of engaging in what Barth called anti-Christ, the analogia entis (i.e. reasoning from the ‘being’ of humanity, reasoning from social conventions, and reading that inference into the eternal relations and inner-life of God’s being).

And yet as JND Kelly points out, the early church never understood the relation of Father/Son to be an absolute relation of subordination (meaning ontological submission) between the Son and the Father, instead there was always an eternal co-equality between all the persons of the Godhead. Kelly writes with reference to Athanasius’ Nicene faith:

Let us examine first his [Athansius’] conception of divine Sonship. God, he holds, can never be without His Word, any more than the light can cease to shine or the river source to flow. Hence the Son must exist eternally alongside the Father. The explanation of this is that His generation is an eternal process; ‘just as Father is always good by nature, so He is by nature always generative’…. ‘It is entirely correct’, he writes, ‘to call Him the Father’s eternal offspring. For the Father’s being was never incomplete, needing an essential feature to be added to it; nor is the Son’s generation like a man’s from his parent, involving His coming into existence after the Father. Rather He is God’s offspring, and since God is eternal and He belongs to God as Son, He exists from all eternity. It is characteristic of men, because of the imperfection of their nature, to beget in time; but God’s offspring is eternal, His nature being always perfect. Like Irenaeus, Athanasius regards the Son’s generation as mysterious; but he interprets  it as implying that, so far from being a creature, He must, like a human offspring, be derived from and share His Father’s nature. Not that we should press the analogy of human generation so far as not to conclude that the Son is, as it were, a portion of divine substance separated out of the Father; this is impossible, the divine nature being immaterial and without parts…. We should also reject the suggestion that the Son is not, like the Father, agennetos, if the connotation put upon this ambiguous term is ‘eternally existing’ or ‘increate’, although He is of course not agennetos if the word retains its etymological sense of ‘ingenerate’.[4]

All of this to note that Athanasius as representative of the Nicene-tradition would reject the idea of an eternal-functional-subordination in the inner life of God; that the Nicene tradition instead held to an eternal generation of the Son of the Father, the Son being of the same substance (consubstantial) of the Father, which itself is ingenerate (i.e. the ousia or being of God). As Kelly notes in regard to Athanasius, the Nicene tradition would reject the utilization of social analogies for attempting to understand the eternal generation of the Son from the Father. Furthermore as Kelly writes, “… ‘The Son’, he argues, ‘is of course other than the Father as offspring, but as God He is one and the same; He and the Father are one in the intimate union of Their nature and the identity of Their Godhead…. Thus they are one, and Their Godhead is one, so that whatever is predicated of the Son is predicated of the Father’.”[5]

Conclusion

It should be clear, I think, that Ware, Grudem, and others do not have precedence in the history to argue their position. We can see that their approach comes from a certain hermeneutical direction (for some more than others more than likely), and a certain way of engaging with the tradition of the church.

It is more than an innovation to argue that the Son is eternally submissive to the Father; at least if the ecumenical councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) are going to have any type of normative force for the church catholic. It is interesting that this move by the EFS’rs is driven so sharply by apparent social conventions and motivations. Maybe more than interesting it is ironic that evangelical theologians would want to take 20th and 21st century cultural traditions (within and from a certain mode of evangelical sub-culture), and deploy those as normative and informative of how they read Scripture and then God from that reading. Typically, for Christians who have a high view of God’s providence (and my guess is that Grudem, Ware, et al. would say they do), it is usually the Christian way to work from the other direction; especially evangelicals. Instead of using modern conventions and traditions to come to exegetical conclusions (complementarianism), etc., most evangelicals would want to work from the catholic (universal) tradition of the church and engage with Scripture from a ‘participatory’ (i.e. Levering) approach.

We’ll see how this all unfolds.

[1] Josh Malone, “On the Eternal Functional Subordination Debate,” accessed on Facebook, 06-11-2016.

[2] Matthew Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2008), 23.

[3] Bruce Ware, “God the Son–at once eternally God with His Father, and eternally Son of the Father,” cited by Darren Sumner, accessed online 06-12-16.

[4] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978), 243-44.

[5] Ibid., 245.

The Rock of Israel: The Self-Sustaining Triune Life of God

There has been a controversy or ‘war’ even between George Hunsinger and Bruce McCormack—or that’s how the outside world has labeled it—in regard to how to receive Barth’s doctrine of God. The basic tension comes from the thesis that Barth’s doctrine of election, that came in his Church Dogmatics II/1, caused him to reify his earlier construed doctrine of God which is found in CD I/1. That is, after Barth had his aha moment in regard to reformulating the classical doctrine of double predestination, the argument goes that by time we get to CD IV/1 that Barth had Christified his doctrine of God to the point that he makes God’s being in history (ad extra), in the economy, constitutive of God’s being in his immanent (ad intra) life. The critique of that comes from folks like Hunsinger and Paul Molnar who argue that Barth stayed consistent in his rendering of a doctrine of God, and that, for Barth, there was always already a classical type of doctrine of aseity, and christologically, a Logos asarkos present; that there was no shift to the type of McCormackean and Jüngelian conception of God that ostensibly propounds that God’s eternal life is posited on his economic life.

In developing the just mentioned context, Molnar offers the following quote in order to help substantiate the case that Barth was actually quite ‘classical’, metaphysical, and thus not post-metaphysical in the ways that McCormack, Jüngel, Ben Myers, et al. have wanted to re-present Barth. Beyond the controversy, I think this quote is beautiful in regard to the way Barth speaks of God’s eternally triune love; it is beautiful to me precisely because it is a self-sustaining love (a se) that is contingent on nothing else but the triune persons in interpenetrative relation (perichoresis) one with the other as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

He reveals Himself as the One who, even though He did not love us and were not revealed to us, even though we did not exist at all, still loves in and for Himself as surely as He is and is God; who loves us by reason and in consequence of the fact that He is the One who loves in His freedom in and for Himself, and is God as such. It is only of God that it can be said that He is in the fact that He loves and loves in the fact that He is. . . . God loves, and to do so He does not need any being distinct from His own as the object of His love. If He loves the world and us, this is a free overflowing of the love in which He is and is God and with which he is not content, although He might be, since neither the world nor ourselves are indispensable to His love and therefore to His being. (IV/2, p. 755)[1]

Beyond helping to substantiate his thesis, Molnar’s thesis, more positively this quote in and of itself represents the type of aesthetic quality that was present in Barth’s thinking; a doxological quality.

Personally, I find great solace in the reality articulated by Barth. I like knowing that God doesn’t need me to be who He is; that God doesn’t need the world, or the creation to be who He is; God is God whether we want to acknowledge that or not. There is an objectivity about God’s life that is non-contingent upon my existence and only relates to His Self-existence. The comfort I draw from this, once God’s primary objectivity is identified, is what Barth calls God’s ‘secondary objectivity,’ an objectivity that God allows us to know Him, to participate in His life in and through the mediation of His life for us in Jesus Christ. There is comfort in knowing that nobody can pluck me out of the Hands of such a God; that this God freely loves out of the overflow and plenitude of His inner-love, and that this is precisely the type of love that typifies what Divine love actually is: a love that is Self-given and defined in and for and then from the other. It brings great joy to my heart knowing that I am included in the depth of this kind of love; a love that is genuinely free, and not consumed with the self (cor incurvatus ad se). A love that is immovable and always abounding in the resplendence of an eternal reality that was there before we ever were; no wonder the Apostle Paul (following Moses et al.) called Christ the Rock of Israel.

[1] Karl Barth, CD IV/2, 755 cited by Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 134.

Thinking Canonically Rather than Confessionally: God is ‘Your Father’

Do you ever get the sense that the theology we do, and the God we pray to are seemingly distinct from the other? Here’s what I mean: Doesn’t it seem that the technical language used to talk about God, theologically, like Simplicity, Immutability, Impassibility, Omni ________, is disjointed from the God we meet in the Bible, in Jesus Christ? Jesus says this to Mary just after he resurrected from the grave:

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?”Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her. – John 20:11-18

And yet when we come across a pivotal Confession for the Protestant churches it says this about God:

There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.[1]

Don’t get me wrong, when we are attempting to think about God in a deep way we are bound to clumsily posit things about him, and ways to talk about him that seem ajar from how we encounter him in Scripture. But this has been my struggle for years. I am, by disposition, believe it or not, very traditional and conservative when it comes to Christian theology. But as I was exposed more and more to what stood behind the theology I only tacitly had been inculcated into as a young Christian person in my growing up years, I realized that the God I was being taught about in my theology classes sounded very little like the God I had been praying to, and then reading about in my Bible for all the years prior.

When I think of God, and the way I know him most intimately, it is as my Father. If I was introduced to Him through the God I encounter in the Confession above, I would actually be in some pretty dire torment; particularly when faced with all the various trials and tribulations that this life offers up on a daily basis. Do I want to know that God is a Rock, unchanging in His ways, as a reality that just has always been? Yes! Do I think in order to fortify this type of knowledge of God that I need to turn to the philosophers in order to supply me with the categories I need to think of God in these ways? No, I don’t. Andrew Purves and Mark Achtemeir write in this vein:

The center of the New Testament is the relationship between Jesus Christ and the One he addresses as Father. The communion between Jesus and his heavenly Fatherly is an utterly unique relationship, of which we can know nothing apart from Jesus’ own testimony. . . . God is thus Father not by comparison to human fathers, but only in the Trinitarian relation, as Father of the Son. Whenever Father is used of God it means “the One whom Jesus called Father.” The paradigm text is John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” In Greek, the word for “made him known” is exegesato. Jesus “exegetes” or “interprets” the Father. The term does not denote a generic title for God outside of the Father and Son relationship. Father thus functions in Trinitarian language not as a descriptive metaphor but as a proper name, whose home is the relationship that exists from all eternity between the first and second Persons of the Trinity.[2]

Clearly, at some level, philosophical grammar will be involved in the doing of theological essaying. But at what level is this type of ‘grammarizing of God’ successful; and is there a better way to ‘evangelize the philosophers’ vis-à-vis other ways?

I think the best way forward is to go with Occam’s Razor, and be as minimalistic as possible when it comes to engaging with the philosophers. I think this is what the quote from Purves and Achtemeir is getting at, and indeed, is working from. To think of God as ‘my Father’ is to think of Him, conceptually, in much different ways and tones than to think of Him as ‘infinite in being and perfection,’ so on and so forth. And personally, I find this to be the fundamental flaw with so much of what counts as Christian theology today, and yesterday. It is the “Confessional” styled theology that is being retrieved by theologians in the evangelical and Reformed worlds today, but at what cost?

I’m not suggesting that within the history there is no good theology, even using and overly using some of the philosophical language. But what I am suggesting is that the lens through which the resourcement is being done is not expansive enough, and more importantly, is not sensitive enough to the reality of who Scripture discloses God to be in Christ. Jesus reveals God to the world as the Son of the Father in the bond of the Holy Spirit’s love. The Bible speaks of God as the ‘lover of our souls’, the Great Shepherd, the Lamb of God, the One who is, as the God with a name (e.g. Yahweh), as the Bridegroom, so on and so forth. I have not found these descriptors concordant with the God I have studied in the theologians (in the majority tradition of Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy). There is a piety, and relational reality that gets lost in thinking of God through overly philosophical terms on a constant basis. And it is wrong to attempt to foreclose on who God is by overly privileging categories about God that themselves are not determined by God’s Self-Revelation in Jesus Christ as mediated through Holy Scripture.

This post is not an advertisement to be a Barthian, or Torrancean, or anything else in that mood. This is simply my reflection on why I have approached the things that I do, in the way that I do. My experience of God, as a result of various personal trauma, sometimes in ongoing ways, has driven me not to think of God as some of the Confessions would have me think of Him, but instead to come to Him as My loving Father, who cares for me like the Great Shepherd of Israel that He is. Some might say that I am making a type of disjunctive category mistake because I am drawing a line between how the ‘theologians’ must speak of God in their “craft,” and how the broken believer wants to speak of God because of the trauma and need of their daily life. But if this was the charge, I would suggest that the problem just might be with those who presume that we can make this type of artificial distinction between the Biblical language and the philosophical language ostensibly used to unpack the perceived implications of the Biblical God. Or obversely, the problem might be with those who too quickly equate the philosophical language with the Biblical God, categorically. Why not just allow the Biblical God and the Biblical categories to stand as the determinative categories that they are for thinking God, and teach the church how to resource the past from this vantage point? Why this compelling need, for many evangelicals, to “retrieve” the past in ways that really is more of an attempt to replicate the past for the present?

This will continue to be a rub for me, and maybe you can better see why. I need to rely upon God as my Father, and I can do that in a canonical rather “confessional” way. I think this is the best way to be evangelical in the 21st century, or in any century.

[1] Westminster Confession of Faith.

[2] Purves and Achtemeier, Union In Christ, 34–36.

The Love of the Triune Life as the Reality of Salvation in the Theology of Hugh Binning

Here is young Scottish theologian (1627–1653), Hugh Binning. He died at a very young age, but in his short life he was able to communicate some beautiful things about God, and how the Triune life was involved in the reality of salvation. Here is a short snippet from him on a Trinitarian salvation,

our salvation is not the business of Christ alone but the whole Godhead is interested in it deeply, so deeply, that you cannot say, who loves it most, or likes it most. The Father is the very fountain of it, his love is the spring of all — “God so loved the world that he hath sent his Son”. Christ hath not purchased that eternal love to us, but it is rather the gift of eternal love . . . Whoever thou be that wouldst flee to God for mercy, do it in confidence. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are ready to welcome thee, all of one mind to shut out none, to cast out none. But to speak properly, it is but one love, one will, one council, and purpose in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, for these Three are One, and not only agree in One, they are One, and what one loves and purposes, all love and purpose.[1]

[1] Hugh Binning cited by Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 79.

The Character of God in Election. Miscellanies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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