Category Archives: Doctrine Of God

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.

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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.

Thinking Divine Simplicity from a Grace-Alone-Frame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hallmarks of the Trinity and God’s Inner Life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Eternal Submission of the Son: John ‘the Baptist’ Webster Calls Her Proponents to Repentance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking About God’s Aseity Alongside John Webster: And Its Impact on Mental Health

Divine aseity as a doctrine and reality has helped me almost more than any other theological locus I can think of. That might seem strange given my apparent predisposition towards kataphatic theology, or theology based solely on God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. But it is this white-hot purifying reality that seemingly God himself has brought me back to over and over again. When the Lord really got a depth hold on me say back in 1995ish (moving me beyond my childhood faith—which was real), he used reality and existence as his means. I became hyper aware, even fixated upon reality and unreality, to the point that it caused me anxiety of the sort I would rather never repeat again. But the reality is is that he learned me into his reality, the reality that all other perceived and physically observable reality pales compared to his real reality. It is the childish idea of getting fixated on the thought that God always just has existed; with no external cause or source, he just is. I say childish because this idea operates under the assumption that God is of a sort—qualitatively—that fits into the created class; as if if we could burrow deep enough we’d finally come to some sort of ‘beginning’ for God. This is childish; we ought to move into meatier ideas about God. Aseity offers a meaty way to think God, but not comprehend him nor circumscribe him with our own powers; aseity simply identifies a reality about God—from his gracious Self-revelation—that recognizes our inability to surmise such a being. This is a purifying reality.

In order to gain better traction on what Divine aseity entails let’s hear from a theologian who I would call a theologian of Divine aseity, the late John Webster. In the following he describes and defines for us the entailments of God’s aseity. I’ll follow with some further reflection based upon Webster’s insights:

Second, it indicates that God’s originality and fullness constitute the ground of his self-communication. He is the one who, out of nothing other than his own self-sufficiency, brings creatures into being, sustains and reconciles them, and brings them to perfection in fellowship with himself. A theology of God’s aseity is an indication of the one who is and acts thus, who is the object of the church’s knowledge, love and fear, and whose praise is the church’s chief employment.

The concept of aseity tries to indicate God’s identity; it is not a definition of God but a gesture towards God’s objective and self-expressive being. The task of the concept is not to establish conditions for conceivability but rather to have rational dealings with the God who is, and is self-communicative, anterior to rational work on our part. God is objective and expressive being, presenting himself to us and making himself perceptible, intelligible and nameable (this is part of the meaning of ‘revelation’). Consequently, in theology aseity is a positive or material concept, determined by the particular form of God’s self-expressive perfection. Its content is grasped as regenerate intelligence, prompted by divine instruction, considers God absolutely and relatively, in his inner being and his outer works. Because of this, theology will not over-invest in whatever generic sense may be attached to the concept of aseity (or of any of the other divine attributes). This, not because of intellectual sectarianism, a desire to segregate theological use in an absolute way from all other speech about deity – after all, aseity, like nearly all Christian theological concepts, is a borrowed term with a wider currency. Rather, theology is simply concerned to ensure that its talk of aseity concentrates on that which is proper to this one.[1]

Do you see how as a limiting doctrine, insofar as it recognizes the type of capacities we have as creatures to think God, this might have a purifying impact? It places the Christian supplicant up against the mighty reality of God. Personally as I ponder this reality the created order gains a proper order; maybe not in a fully spelled out sense, but in the sense that the whole world, as Isaiah notes, is nothing more than a ‘drop in a bucket’ before God. Living in the reality of God’s aseity takes the pressure off of me to perform and sustain, and places that burden on the shoulders it should be placed. Aseity recognizes that God is God and I am not, and it’s a relief. Aseity contradicts the original lie of Genesis 3; a lie that has placed untold burden on humanity, a burden that makes it seem like each individual human being must assert its own inner-divinity. Aseity takes that away from the creature and recognizes that God alone is big enough to bear the burdens of holding the world together; even our own worlds that seemingly fall apart the moment we wake up each day.

For the Christian aseity does not suggest a nebulous reality greater than can be conceived; instead aseity is particularized in the God-man for us, Jesus Christ (thinking about how the Deus absconditus is Deus revelatus – the ‘hidden God’ is the ‘revealed God’). In other words, aseity, for the Christian comes to us in personal terms. The Son introduces us to the Father by the Holy Spirit and we enter into his reality by grace becoming participants and partakers of the divine nature wherein recognition of just who this God, our God is. He truly is. It is this personal reality that makes thinking aseity possible; in other words, God’s Self-revelation sets the conditions for coming to recognition that God just is. Just is in the sense that he just is without explanation; he’s just there, and he’s said he’s just there for us—and he said this in such a way that his self-sufficiency in his inexplicability is the basis upon which he has freely chosen to be for us apart from needing us to be who he is for and with us.

An aside. Like I noted above, I struggled with serious anxiety and depression for many years; much of that had to do with precisely this issue: the issue of reality and existence. When we can start to live and move in the reality of God’s aseity, in the face of Jesus Christ, so many of the pressures we place upon ourselves simply melt away. I would suggest that much of what our culture popularly and even academically identifies as mental-illness in the 21st century context is a result of the human condition and its inner-impulse and propulsion to be God without having the a se resource to actually pull such a feat off. Coming to the brink of my own beginning and end by living in the recognition that God, who has no beginning or end, becomes the strong shelter, the everlasting arms I constantly flee to to find refuge. When I can come to that place, as the prophets speak of, that I am just silent before this God who just is, it is here that the shalom of God comes to be experienced. I am not suggesting that mental and other issues are magically ‘cured’ by coming to live in the realization of God’s a se life, but I am suggesting that without this recognition the conditions for personal liberation and healing (in a genuinely theological proper way) will not be present.

 

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1 God And The Works Of God (London-New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), Loc 283, 290, 296 kindle version.

No to the ‘Just Is’ God: Knowing God in Fulfillment Rather than Promise; Knowing God as Christians Rather than as Pre-Christian Christians

Classical theism, particularly of the medieval and post reformed orthodox (16th and 17th c.) style operates from a rather discursive notion of God. We might come to imagine that we just do know God; that is if we press our powers enough and rely heavily enough upon the yet unintroduced Holy Spirit in our lives. It is from this posture that many classical theists pick up their Bibles, at least of the Protestant sort, and just think that the God they have come to accept as their personal Lord (soli Deo gloria) starts out as God for them in Genesis 1:1 and linearly eventuates through the turns and eddies of salvation-history as the Savior they have met in Jesus Christ. It is upon this type of basis—as I have severely oversimplified it—that many classical theists operate from a just is assertive posture about God’s existence and their relative knowledge of this God (aided by the creative quality of grace each of the elect have in the accidents of their souls).

We have covered this ground on this blog a million times; I know! But I want to reiterate it again. I cannot get over how significant this is; viz. how we have knowledge of God, and which God we actually have knowledge of. If we get this most basic point wrong then everything else following will have the shape of how wrong we are or how right we are; in the sense that the God we believe we’ve come to know is actually the real and living God or not. What I am after—always—even as dramatic as I’ve just painted it has to do with prolegomena (or theological method and how that is given pre-Dogmatic shape by the God we believe we’ve come to know). Do creatures just have an implicit knowledge or sense of God; or is knowledge of God something completely and utterly and absolutely alien to us; is knowledge of God in its most intensive and principial modes something that is fully contingent upon God encountering us? More pointedly, is knowledge of God something that we can principally call Christian Knowledge of God?

Here is what I think (you know this): I only have come to know God, in my Christian experience and realization through the Son, Jesus Christ. As such my knowledge of God, even in the Old Testament, does not have an abstract character to it, instead it always already has a Christ conditioned character to it. My knowledge of God, as a Christian, never was generic; my knowledge of God has always been filled out by the illumination that has come from my position as a Christian in union with Christ (unio cum Christo). So I didn’t come to the God of the Old Testament without the Son; I’ve only come to God, as a Christian, within the fulfillment of the promises made about him as the new creation of God in the vicarious and mediatorial humanity he assumed in the incarnation. As such my knowledge of God is not from a hypothetical space as if I was born a Jew in the ancient near east; my knowledge of God, as a Christian, at a definitional and prescriptive level comes bound up in the man from Nazareth. If this is the case we have, what I would like to call, a ‘retroactive recognition’ and knowledge of God; meaning that as Christians we don’t read God linearly from Genesis 1:1, instead we read God starting in the reality of John 1:1 and understand God, even in the Old Testament, only as the Father of the Son and the Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit.

If the above is true then a just is knowledge of God, of the sort that we find in many classical theisms does not make sense as a genuinely Christian mode for knowledge of God. For the Christian, in principle, there has never been a generic starting point for knowledge of God; there has never been a time where we, as a Christian, would pick up the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible and think of God in any other terms as the Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit, as if we could think of God in a time before (in salvation-history terms) we first knew him as the God who first loved us in the Son, Christ, that we might love him. We wouldn’t have the motivation or care to read the Old Testament and think God in personal and relational terms without first having relationship with this God as the Father of the Son Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit. But this is the route so many classical theists of the classical type want us to take in our knowledge of God. I don’t want to take this route; I don’t think it’s consistent with my position as a Christian. In other words, my knowledge of God as a Christian is necessarily what it is precisely because I am a Christian. As such the knowledge of God I have access to is fully and contingent upon his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. As a Christian I don’t have another way, no churchly way, and no profane way of knowing God. God is either Self-explicated for us or he is explicated as is by us in abstraction from his Self-explication. There is no just is God; there is only the God for us that we know through Jesus Christ as the Son of the Father Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit. If this is so we can’t have a refracted knowledge of God that beams off of Scripture as if we meet God in the promises; no, our knowledge of God only comes to us in the fulfillment of the promises, in the seed of David, Jesus Christ. This does things to theological methodology, and subsequently to Christian spirituality.

‘God by nature is technically indifferent towards Creatures’: Worshipping the God of the Philosophers Rather than the God of the Bible

The Bible uses metaphors, analogies even, when referring to God. One of those, the one I think is most apropos for the topic of this post is: Rock. The idea of ‘rock’ connotes thoughts of immovability, hardness, strength, stability, security so on an so forth. The Christian classical theistic tradition likes to emphasize these realities about who God is—and rightfully so. But as we have covered so many times here there is a problem, from my perspective, with the metaphysic classical theism, by definition, has chosen. Before we go further it is important for me to qualify that I recognize that there are different instantiations of classical theism. That is to say, at some level all Christian theological tradition, particularly with reference to the development of a theology proper, must engage with some sort of metaphysical tradition; I am not a proponent of the thesis that anyone has actually achieved a post-metaphysical approach when engaging in theological endeavor. Further, whilst (I’m American so I use ‘whilst’ under advisement) metaphysics are necessarily the case for the theologian; some do better than others in ‘evangelizing metaphysics’ (h/t Peter Leithart for that phraseology). Recognizing that there is a certain continuity that has accrued in the Christian theological trad, I do not believe that this means that say medieval classical theistic development, most prominently undertaken by Thomas Aquinas, is equal with other or earlier classical theistic development under the ecumenical councils, or other theologians like Athanasius, Maximus the Confessor et al. I know people will disagree with me on just that point, but we will have to disagree. I believe Aquinas, for example, elevated Aristotelian categories in ways that other classical theists hadn’t prior to his unique and even genius movements of thought. While Aquinas was virtuoso I think he helped supply subsequent appropriations of his movements, such as we find in iterations of Post Reformed orthodox theology, with wrong emphases in regard to how we think God.

After the long qualification and sketch I just offered, what I want to do now is quote someone I respect and consider a friend, Steve Duby. Steve did his PhD on the very issues we have just been addressing, particularly with reference to the medieval classical tradition and how that impacts a doctrine of God. What I want to highlight, in particular, is how appeal to the classical theistic trad, so understood, affects, and more, correlates, or doesn’t, with the God Self-revealed in Jesus Christ as attested in Holy Scripture. As Protestants we like to assert that we are subordinate to the authority of Holy Scripture, as one of the principles of the Protestant Reformation; but in practice I often think that this assertion gets negated. In other words, in our attempt to, in good-faith, explicate the inner-logic (or theology) of Scripture, we end up affirming traditions that at the end of the day transmute God into a deity that I would contend does not fit well with the God Self-explicated in Jesus Christ. In this attempt we end up allowing the metaphysic we have adopted to do this type of heavy lifting for us to transgress the prior principle we say we are committed to when we assert that we are committed to the categorical authority of Holy Scripture. We allow the metaphysic and its categories to ‘essentially’ dictate to us what the categories of God must be even if those categories are not concurrent with the God we continuously encounter as we turn the pages of Scripture.

To help illustrate what I have been blathering on about further, let us now hear from Duby on God. I will appeal to what he has written in an effort to make clear what I have been asserting in regard to what happens when a faulty metaphysic is appealed to in a good-faith attempt to grammarize and articulate God for the church (no easy task to be sure!). Here is what Steve writes; for those familiar you will notice the Aristotelian over and undertones as the informing categories.

In His perfect actuality, the triune God freely creates a contingent world. The concern that we noted earlier in theologians like Moltmann and Torrance about preserving the contingency of the world should not be brushed aside. At the same time, that contingency is grounded, not in a divine temporal succession in which God might exist in temporal priority to creation, but rather in God’s fullness and completeness that entails, in scholastic terms, His “liberty of indifference” (freedom to create or not to create the world without any fulfillment or declension of His being hanging in the balance). Given that God is already actively fulfilled in Himself in trinitarian fellowship, He needs no external counterpart or external object of love. In choosing to create the world and in performing the act of creation itself, He does not fulfill a potency in His being but instead generously directs or turns His essential actuality toward the world. It may be asked whether God accomplished His outward action by His essential actuality would mean that the outward action is just as necessary as God’s own act of being. Why should God’s outward action still be taken as ontologically subsequent to His (necessary) act of being? My response is simply to clarify that the argument here does not posit a total identity of essential actuality and outward action. The former is complete in itself and absolutely necessary in God, while the latter is a matter of the application of the former toward creatures. Since the former is perfect in God’s triune life, God is by nature “indifferent” toward creatures in a technical sense (unable to be improved or attenuated by willing to create or not to create). His outward action is thus located under an externally directed, free application of His essential actuality, which then entails a distinction between the (contingent) action or egression and the necessary essential act of God.[1]

We can see that Duby is attempting to offer a treatment of God that appeals to classical theistic categories within a discussion about a God-world relation in a doctrine of creation. We also see appeal to, in particular, the categories of immutability and impassibility; the ideas that God cannot be moved from an extraneous reality to himself, and similarly that God has no passions contingent upon external sources such as human agents represent; indeed God has no passion given his fully actualized state, according to this iteration of the classical tradition. Duby earlier in the chapter notes that it is possible to arrive at such categories about God by way of ‘general revelation’ outwith the special revelation provided for by the Bible or more specifically, Jesus Christ; Duby writes, “. . . various authors in the Christian tradition have (justifiably, in my estimation) gleaned from general revelation that God is “pure act” (never inactive or having any unrealized potential in Himself) . . . .”[2] And this gets us to the nub of my concern. Why would we, as Christians, by way of theological method, want to affirm that we could arrive at ‘basic’ conclusions about God without first giving priority to the categories we are confronted with by the disclosure of Holy Scripture and the Revelation that grounds that in Jesus Christ?

I emboldened the primary point of illustration I wanted to make from Steve’s treatment. Beyond the various scholastic distinctions being made between God’s actuality, potency, and how that works in an ostensibly Christian doctrine of creation, what I wanted to highlight is how that cashes out when it is applied to a Father/Son-humanity relation. ‘Technically God is indifferent towards creatures’ for the Dubyian account because God’s actuality, his impassibility must remain intact; in other words the Creator/creature distinction must be maintained such that any suggestion that God might be contingent upon his creation for his being must be ameliorated. I would agree that we don’t want to make God contingent upon creation, this would be the worst type of pantheism; but if we must use the classical theistic categories in order to arrive at this conclusion is something lost? I would contend: Yes, something is lost!

All throughout Scripture, Old and New Testaments, God is referred to in the most relational of terms; not just in anthropopathic terms, but in real existential (and ontological I would argue) terms. He ‘walks in the cool of the garden’ in fellowship with the prelapasarian Adam and Eve; He is the Father of Israel; He is the Shepherd of Israel; He broods over Israel as a Mother Hen broods over her chicks; He weeps; He is the Father of all comfort; He cries for His people; God is love. My point: Scripture does not offer us with a conception of God that is ‘technically indifferent towards creatures,’ in fact just the opposite! This is what I mean when I speak of a metaphysic that offers us a conception of God that is discordant with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Why would we want to affirm such categories to do such heavy lifting that in the end does something to God’s character that God himself according to Scripture does not emphasize about himself; at least not in the terms that said metaphysic requires?

 

[1] Steve J. Duby, “Divine Action And The Meaning Of Eternity,” in Bradford LittleJohn ed., God of our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Institute, 2018), Loc 2227, 2235, 2242 kindle version. [Emphasis mine]

[2] Ibid., Loc. 2107.

Correcting the Errors of Classical Theism and Its Recovery for the Protestant Evangelical Churches: Get God Wrong, Get Everything Following Wrong

Who is God? This basic but all important question has significant ramifications for everything; it is not just a “theological academic” question, it is a question that people live out of every day of their daily lives (whether they are a theist or not). This question drives me in all that I do, and it has for all the years I can remember; one way or the other. This is why I am so passionate about issues revolving around Reformed theology, and theology in general. As a Protestant Christian I have a certain way into thinking God, it is one that is in dialogue with the tradition of the church, but at the same time is not slavishly linked to the tradition when the tradition veers from its subordination to the reality of Holy Scripture, Jesus Christ. It is this commitment, and this reality that continues to propel me forward in my quest to know who God is; it is for this reason that I am an Evangelical Calvinist, so called. An Evangelical Calvinist operates in a mood that is by definition dialogical or dialekin; where an emphasis on a living encounter with God’s Word in Christ is elevated, and the ability, therein, is given to continue to know God in ever deepening and freshening ways. As a result of this way engaging with the tradition of the church, particularly when it comes to theology proper, provides certain concrete parameters, or least grammars, but it is not necessarily the end of the discussion only the beginning. For the remainder of this post we will look briefly at the tradition, in regard to a doctrine of God, and then will use that as the foil to highlight the better way that I have found in Barth’s theology and in modern theology in general. We will conclude this post with my fleeting thoughts on why I think this is important for what I will call ‘church theology’ (some call this “practical theology”).

In one part of the medieval tradition of the church, when it came to a theology proper, we had what is known as nominalism; often William of Ockham is noted as its primary purveyor (even if that is under contest today). In nominalism there are two ways to think God: 1) God as he is in eternity in himself (in se), which is tied into his ‘power’ or what is called potentia absoluta; 2) God as he is in the economy (ad extra) of salvation in temporal history, which is also tied into his ‘power’ and what is called potentia ordinata. The effect of this conception is to present a rupture, potentially, between who God is in eternity (in his antecedent life), and who God is in Jesus Christ in the Incarnation and salvation history (in life concrete). The nominalist way of securing a relationship between these two modes of God was to inject a concept of ‘covenant’ into the mix resulting, as the case may be, in an ad hoc relationship between God and the world; one that was based, indeed, upon God, but one that did not secure a relationship between the God in eternity and his acts in time such that his acts in time in Jesus Christ necessarily had any relationship to who God really was or might be in his interior life (we might also want to bring Scotus voluntarism into the discussion at this point as well).

So we have the aforementioned in the history, and that gets appropriated and redressed in the Post Reformed Orthodox period (16th/17th c.); it is this type of distinction that really never leaves us, even in the modern period. Here is an example of this in the theology of Herman Gollwitzer, as that is critiqued by Eberhard Jüngel, according to David Congdon. What I want the reader to see is not only how this sort of dualism continues to persist, but how someone like Jüngel responded to it. What I hope the reader will recognize is the sort of development inherent to a doctrine of God, and that even the moderns, with all the sloppy talk of them ALL distorting a doctrine of God, instead were steeply engaged with an orthodox doctrine of God while at the same time attempting to provide for better treatments wherein knowledge of God could be secured, and controlled by a concentrated referral to God’s Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. Here is Congdon on Jüngel and Gollwitzer:

The fundamental criticism Jüngel levels against Gollwitzer is that he posits a bifurcation in God’s being between nature and will, between essence and existence. In other words, Gollwitzer inserts an ontological separation between “God-in-and-for-God-self” and “God-for-us,” between Deus in se and Deus pro nobis. Jüngel summarizes the issue in the following way: “Gollwitzer stresses . . . that the mode of being [Seinsart] of revelation has its ground ‘not in the essence of God but in the will of God,’ so that it is ‘not possible per analogiam to infer back’ from the understanding of God’s being-as-revelation in the mode of being [Seinsweise] of an innerhistorical subject ‘to the essence of God in the sense of God’s constitutive nature [Beschaffenheit], but only to the essence of God’s will, i.e., from God’s will as made known in history to God’s eternal will as the will of God’s free love’” (ibid., 6). Gollwitzer affirms that God ad extra reveals God ad intra, but he rejects the notion that God’s historical acts reveal God’s eternal being; instead, they only reveal God’s eternal will. Gollwitzer backs away, then, from the work of theological ontology. He does this in order to preserve God’s freedom, which Gollwitzer secures by—as Jüngel puts it—leaving “a metaphysical background in the being of God that is indifferent to God’s historical acts of revelation” (ibid.). He separates the “essence of God” from the “essence of God’s will”: the former existing as the ontological ground of the latter, though otherwise having no obvious relation to it. The constitution of God’s eternal being is, therefore, static and unaffected by the acts of God in time and space. Unfortunately, in speaking about the “essence of God’s will” Gollwitzer failed to speak correspondingly of the “will of God’s essence” (ibid.). By separating essence and will he ends up creating an abstract hidden “God behind God,” in which case there is no guarantee that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is ontologically the same God who exists from all eternity.[1]

This sounds similar to my sketch of the potentias; I think. This is a continuing and pervasive problem in the churches; particularly as the evangelical churches attempt to resource the categories developed for a doctrine of God in the mediaeval and Post Reformation Reformed orthodox periods. Whether the resourcing is on the nominalist, Thomist, or Scotus side, the problem remains in the sense that there is always a rupture placed between God’s inner life and outer life; between God’s essence and acts. The problems, on a continuum, vis-à-vis the various traditions, can be nuanced in significant ways, and some do better than others in closing the gap between the problem we see illustrated by Gollwitzer’s distinction, but the problem remains (e.g. appeal to decrees or the decretum absolutum). We see, according to Congdon’s development, Jüngel’s critique of Gollwitzer; it is this tradition of critique that developed in the modern period (which is constantly derided as doing irreparable damage to a doctrine of God; thus part of the emphasis for theology of retrieval by evangelical conservatives) that we will turn to through appeal to Bruce McCormack’s development of Karl Barth’s own critique and movement beyond another modern theologian named Alexander Schweizer. As with Gollwitzer and the Nominalists et al., Schweizer similarly has this problem of having an excess of God that stands above or behind the back of Jesus Christ. Barth seeks to correct this—and I think he does!—pervasive problem by using the traditional category of election with the function of bringing God in eternity and his acts in time together in the singular person of Jesus Christ. He writes:

That election is “the sum of the Gospel” was grounded by Karl Barth in the fundamental claim that the primary object of election is not humankind but God himself. In Barth’s view, the primal decision of God (the “decree” if you will) is never to be God apart from humankind. Alternately expressed, God chooses himself for us; God decides himself for grace. In this wholly gracious, wholly free, unconditional primal decision of God for grace is contained in nuce all else that follows in time: the election of the eternal Son for incarnation, suffering, and death on a cross; the election in him of the whole of humanity for communion with God; the outpouring of the Spirit, the creation and upbuilding of a community of believers who represent the whole of humanity. It is at this point that Barth’s most original contribution to the historical development of the doctrine of election must be seen to lie. In making God to be not only the subject of election but also its primary object, Barth was making election to be the key of his doctrine of God. Barth would have been in formal agreement with the Schweizerian dictum “What God does in time must be grounded in the eternal being of God”; indeed, it was one of his most cherished convictions. But the material connections in which such a claim stands in Barth’s theology as a whole give it a very different meaning than it had for Alexander Schweizer.

Barth took as the starting-point for all of his dogmatic reflections the Self-revelation of God in the history of Jesus Christ, that is, the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the God-man. To put it this way is already to suggest that the starting-point is not simply the man Jesus as he appeared on the surface of history. The starting-point is the God-man as witnessed to in Scripture, and the history of this God-man begins in the way taken by God in taking to himself a fully human life as his very own (in all its limitations, up to including death). It is this history which Barth has in mind.

On the basis of the Self-revelation, he then asked, what must God be like if he can do what he has in fact done? What is the condition of the possibility in eternity for the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God in time? In taking this approach, Barth was taking a principled stance against the more traditional procedure (followed in large measure by Schweizer) of beginning with an “abstract” concept of God (which is to say, one that has been completely fleshed out without reference to God’s Self-revelation in Christ) and only then turning to that revelation to find in it confirmation of what was already attributed to God without it. Such a procedure, as we have already seen in relation to Schweizer, determines in advance what revelation in Christ will be allowed to say. Against this procedure employed by theism in all its forms (classical and neo-Protestant), Barth proposed to work in an a posteriori fashion, beginning not with a general concept of God or a general concept of human being but with a most highly concrete reality, Jesus Christ. And so, if God has in fact done something, it will not do to say that God cannot do it. Theologically responsible reflection will only be able to ask, What is the eternal ground for God’s acts in time?[2]

The ‘procedure’ for Barth, as McCormack details, was to refer theological method to the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, as decisive for reflecting upon who God is. In this procedure the gap is closed between God’s being in eternity and time, not by appeal to speculative or discursive means made by assertion via the theologians, but instead by appeal to God himself as that is revealed by Godself in God clothed with the particular flesh of the man from Nazareth. This becomes important precisely because it dispossesses the controls for considering who God might be away from the theologians, and places that within the control of God as now regulated by God’s Self-revelation in Christ. The ‘God of eternity’ in his immanent life is now the same God we see in the ‘God of the economy’ in the life of Christ. For Barth, according to McCormack, the even more radical reality is that God has freely elected to not be God without us, and has chosen that this be the very ground of his ‘being’ as God; as that is realized in his becoming for us in grace (this of course is not uncontroversial in North American Barth studies).

Conclusion

In closing, in an attempt to make this already too long of a blog post shorter than it could be, let me bring some of this home in more personal terms. When I am sitting in the pew at church on Sunday mornings in my evangelical conservative church that is committed to recovering the God articulated in the Post Reformed orthodox period it becomes difficult for me to sit there without at least squirming. Some people want to reduce Christian ministry to meeting the needs of broken people with the love of Christ, and this reduction entails the minimization of rigorous doctrinal reflection in the name of expediency for the Christian ministry. But what if the God you think you are doing ministry for and in the name of is different than the God you think you are doing ministry for; viz. will who God is, and your understanding of that impact the type of ministry you are doing? Is all of this awash in the end such that our good intentions will cover the multitude of theological errors we operated under? God’s grace is certainly bigger than our misunderstandings, but this does not excuse us from being people of the truth and ‘aiming for perfection’ as the Apostle Paul exhorts us to. But this is why I am troubled when sitting in church and I hear, over and again, things asserted about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that I KNOW are not from the Bible but instead derive from the speculative thoughts and developed traditions of the theologians; and these traditions simply received based upon the good-will of the people in the name of conservative Protestant orthodox theology.

In short: I want my understanding of God to be regulated and controlled by God, under the constraints he has set out for himself in his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Does this mean we no longer have to rigorously work out what even this type of theology proper looks like? No. But it means we are much better footing than before. If we get God wrong all subsequent thinking following, all subsequent doctrinal developments will be awry. Simply dismissing this—as almost ALL conservative evangelical theologians do—as merely Barthian or modern theological rubbish shouldn’t be taken that seriously, and they should quit taking themselves so seriously. I realize that I am mostly speaking into the wind, but be that as it may, hopefully there are some of you in the wind who have ears to hear and eyes to see even in the midst of the storm.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 15 n19. [emphasis mine]

[2] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 57-8.

The Self-Communicating God of Athanasius Against the Mute God of Arius: God’s Being As Love Rather Than An Absolute Self

The doctrines of old never really get old. The heresies of old never really get old, they just re-emerge in new language games per the periods those language games are played within. Aspects of what is known as Arianism continue to rear its ugly head into the 21st century. If you don’t know Arianism, at base, is the idea that ‘there was a time when the Son was not’; in other words, there was a time when the Son of God, who we now know as Jesus Christ, was non-existent, that he is a creature. This was the heresy that flowered early in the church through the teachings of Arius, and his followers, and which Athanasius argued against starting early at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Ironically there are many, even today, who want to argue that the development of what became Nicene theology is really the result of overly imposing Hellenic categories upon God thus making God into a three-headed monster; or making God into a pantheon of persons seated above in the heavenlies. I say this is ironic because we do have a case of an over imposition of Greek categories upon the Christian God, but it isn’t from the Trinitarians (the Nicenes); it is from the Arian impulse to mold God into the monadic conception of godness that we can derive from the classical philosophers (e.g. the god of the philosophers). In fact it is the Trinitarians who refused to give into the seduction provided for by the intellectuals, and instead flipped the grammar they developed on its head by allowing the pressure of God’s Self-revelation and Self-communication in Jesus Christ to reify such categories in such a way that the Revelation of God forged the categories Christians think God from. There is indeed a Greek impulse available in the Christian tradition, but it is resident with those who would identify with Arius and his followers rather than with Athanasius and his.

Arthur McGill, in a distilled and precise fashion, offers a fruitful line in regard to what Athanasius accomplished contra [mundum] Arius and the dead fruit he produced.

ATHANASIUS AND ARIUS: A STUDY IN CONTRASTS

Let us conclude this chapter by setting the Trinitarian God and the Arian God in the sharpest possible contrast so that all the issues may be clearly seen.

At one level, we are concerned with the question of God’s essential being, of the quality that gives him his identity as God. According to Arius, the indispensable mark of divinity is unbegottenness, or what we might call absolute independence. God is divine because he exists wholly from within himself, wholly on his own. He needs nothing, he depends on nothing, he is in essence related to nothing. And this, according to the Trinitarian theologians, is precisely what the powerfulness disclosed in Jesus Christ discredits. For as these theologians read certain passages in the Gospel of John, the powerfulness in Jesus is characterized as fully and perfectly divine, and yet at the same time, as totally and continually derived.

In other words, as present in Jesus, God’s powerfulness has a form—the form of dependence—which Arius can only reject as quite unworthy of God. In place of self-contained and self-sufficient autonomy, what the Trinitarian theologians see as the defining mark of divinity is that totality of self-giving which proceeds between the Father and the Son. The Father gives all that he is to the Son; the Son obeys the Father and offers all that he is back to the Father. The Father and the Son are not divine, therefore, in terms of the richness of reality that they possess within themselves. They do not exist closed up within their own being. Rather, they are divine in terms of the richness of the reality that they communicate to the other. Against Arius’ reverential awe of the absolute, Gregory of Nazianzus puts the alternative:

Thus much we for our part will be bold to say, that if it is a great thing for the Father to be unoriginate, it is no less a thing for the Son to have been begotten of such a Father. For not only would he share the glory of the unoriginate, since is of the unoriginate, but he has the added glory of his generation, a thing so great and august in the eyes of all those who are not altogether groveling and material in mind. (Theological Orations III. ii; Christology of the Later Fathers, p. 168.)

If Arius identifies God’s divinity with his absolute independence, Gregory identifies it with his inner life of self-giving.

At a second level, we are faced with the question of how God exercises his divinity in relation to the world and to men. For Arius, God’s complete self-sufficiency means that with the world he appears in the form of absolute domination. As God depends on nothing, everything else depends on him. As he is completely rich, everything else is completely poor. As he is completely powerful, everything else is completely weak, and is called to revere his power. And as he can affect other things without himself being affected, i.e., through an intermediary agent, everything else is its activity affects itself and other things, but not him.

According to the Trinitarian theologians, nothing could be more contrary to the power of God that men encounter in Jesus Christ than this Arian picture. Far from being a vessel of dominating mastery, Jesus is just the opposite. He does not come on clouds of glory. He does not stand over his followers, ordering them hither and yon to his bidding and vindicating his authority by unopposable acts of self-assertion. In the Epistle to Diognetus, and early Christian writing, the question is asked, Why did God send his Son?

To rule as a tyrant, to inspire terror and astonishment? No, he did not. No, he sent him in gentleness and mildness. To be sure, as a king sending his royal son, he sent him as God. But he sent him as to men, as saving and persuading them, and not as exercising force. For force is no attribute of God.

“Force is no attribute of God”—that is the basic principle for the Trinitarian theologians. God’s divinity does not consist in his ability to push things around, to make and break, to impose his will from the security of some heavenly remoteness, and to sit in grandeur while all the world does his bidding. Far from staying above the world, he sends his own glory into it. Far from imposing, he invites and persuades. Far from demanding service from me in order to enhance himself, he gives his life in service to men for their enhancement. But God acts toward the world in this way because within himself he is a life of self-giving.[1]

Which conception of God are you being exposed to today in the Christian church? There is a major recovery movement taking place in and among evangelical Protestant theologians; they are attempting to recover the classical theistic conception of God that they believe is the church catholic conception of God. But we might want to ask ourselves if the God being recovered, the version of the classical theistic conception of God that is being recovered resembles the Athanasian or the Arian understanding more or less? Is the God being recovered for the church the relational and self-communicating God that Athanasius articulates, or are the impulses being recovered more in line with the Arian monadic conception of God wherein God’s absolute independence, apart from relational emphases, is being emphasized? While a fully fledged Arianism may well not be being recovered, this does not mean the untextualized impulses of the Greek godness principles that Arius thought from can’t be attendant in some modulated form in the God being recovered for the evangelical churches.

More materially, as McGill distills Athanasius, what stands out is indeed the reality that God, at core, in se, is a God of onto-relation; a God who finds his being in subject-in-being relation such that the oneness of God (ousia) is shaped by the threeness of God (hypostaseis), and vice versa. That God’s being is necessarily one of love, and that love is defined by his very activity of self-giveness as he is resplendently Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is within this anterior coinhering relations of God that we can begin to understand why God created to begin with; that the who of God’s life precedes the what as that is revealed for us in the God for us in Jesus Christ. It is within this antecedent reality of God’s life that our lives make sense, and that suffering itself takes upon new hues of bright and vibrant color; as we come to recognize the deep relationality of God, and the Self-relating dependence of God within himself, that we recognize how significant relationship is for us. God is able to reverse what the enemy intended for evil by using suffering and tragedy to recognize our deep need for him; that we can come to recognize that the ground and bases of our lives is an ecstatic one given to us as gift ever afresh and anew by the guarantee of the Holy Spirit sealed upon our hearts with the kiss of Jesus Christ.

I am sorely concerned for the churches. I’m concerned that they are getting a more Arian-like conception of God that does not provide them with an adequate understanding of God which can only result in a deleterious spirituality that has nothing to do with who God really is in himself as revealed as the Son of the Father. Yes, the God of the schoolmen has certain qualities to him, but are they the actual realities that Athanasius could see? Yes, Athanasius used a similar grammar to the Greeks, and a similar grammar to the God of the classical theists, but he may well have used that grammar in equivocal ways from the way that say medieval classical theists used that grammar. These are big ideas, and big concerns; but they have real life and concrete iterations and implications in and for the people of the church of Jesus Christ.

[1] Arthur C. McGill, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method (Eugene, OR: Wipf&Stock Publishers, 1982), 80-2.