Doctrine Of God

No Theology Proper Behind the Back of Karl Barth: Just Say Nein to Theologies that Try to Talk God without the Primacy of Christ

I was reading Cornelius van der Kooi’s and Gijsbert van den Brink’s recently released Systematic Theology: Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction. I am really enjoying it. Just as they are getting into a Doctrine of God, with particular focus on God as Trinity, they say this in regard to attempting to do theology as if Karl Barth had never come on the scene:

In our opinion it is impossible (as [John] Frame proposed) to go back to a pre-Barthian nonchristological understanding of the doctrine of God. The Christian concept of God is not generally theistic in nature, with a specifically Christian appendix coming only at the end. From the very start it is determined and colored by the one who was “in the bosom of the Father” and has made him known (John 1:18). In John’s eschatological vision we discover at the center of God’s throne “a Lamb standing as though it had been slain”—a picture of the crucified and risen Christ (Rev 5:6). He is the image of God (Col 1:15), which will apparently determine our view of God in eternity. We should not try to think about God apart from him.[1]

I could not agree more. This is why I have been so drawn to Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance); what he did was attempt to do theology as if theology could only be done as if Christology happened first. We are Christians after all, and we therefore are to read the Bible and know God in and through Jesus Christ. This something I picked up years prior to coming across Barth, i.e. the idea that the Bible is all about Jesus (cf. John 5.39). This is why I have such a hard time attempting to think theologically alongside so many of my comrades of today in a way that wants to pretend like Karl Barth was never on the scene in a seriously revolutionary way for the theological endeavor; for the church of Jesus Christ in these last days.

As we can see, Kooi and Brink have John Frame in mind as an example of someone who wants to try and do theology as if Karl Barth’s Christ concentrated approach never existed, but there is someone even more contemporary than that (although she fully recognizes the significance of Barth, she just disagrees with his Christological approach). I am referring to Katherine Sonderegger; here is something I wrote about her in review of her ST for the journal Cultural Encounters:

Katherine Sonderegger in the preface to her Systematic Theology, Volume One, The Doctrine of God makes her disdain for the turn to the Trinity for thinking God very clear; she writes: “Perhaps nothing so marks out the modern in systematic theology as the aversion to the scholastic treatise, De Deo Uno. (p. xiv) She believes the Trinity, because of Karl Barth primarily, has taken such pride of place as to crowd out the prime reality that Christian theology first and foremost, when it comes to a theology proper, is a monotheistic faith. She regrets the impact that so called Trinitarian theology has had upon the reality of God’s Oneness; she writes of the De Deo Uno vis-à-vis De Deo Trino, “It belongs not to the preface but rather the body of the dogmatic work to lay out the broad movement in present day dogmatics that has pressed the treatise De Deo Trino to the fore; indeed, it crowds out and supplants the exposition of the One God.” (p. xiv)[2]

If you read her ST in full, it becomes clear that she thinks Barth has gone awry by so focusing on Christology and/or the Trinity as the preamble, as it were, to developing a theological doctrine of God, that she thinks God’s singularity (his “Oneness”) is lost. But again, in agreement with Kooi and Brink, and against Sonderegger, in this instance, as Christians we do not think God in generically theocentric terms, but instead from His Self Revelation in Jesus Christ; in and from the particularity and scandalous reality of the ‘hidden God’ (Deus absconditus) as the ‘revealed God’ (Deus Revelatus) in Jesus Christ. We are Christians not philosophers, per se, after all.

What I am registering in this post is nothing new for me, of course; but I actually believe that what Barth has done has global impact, or it should! As Christians we are ‘people of the Book,’ as such we follow the “narrativity” of Holy Scripture as our ‘lamp’ for introduction to God in Christ. This is what Barth was all about, he simply wanted to follow the Reformed Scripture principle, and because he did his theologizing has been labeled by some as ‘narrative theology’ (Robert Jenson being a student of Barth who has run with that style of theologizing). The approach, in this way, is more hermeneutical than it is metaphysical; it does not deny or ignore the metaphysical, but it reorients things in such a way that the economy of God’s life in salvation history, which has always already found its telos (‘purpose’) in Christ, grounds how Christians should approach God through and through. It prefers to be naïve when it comes to philosophical theology, and instead focuses on biblical theology.

It is more than ironic to me that those in the conservative Reformed and evangelical world (which I myself inhabit) critique Barth as if they are the one’s following the Bible, and Barth was either a heretic, or at least severely heterodox. It is ironic to me that those who claim to follow sola scriptura by the letter want to diminish Barth as a biblical theologian when in fact Barth was the one who was attempting to stick most closely to the text of Scripture, and engage as little as possible with medieval substance metaphysics; i.e. the metaphysics that grounds the theologizing of the conservative Reformed and evangelical types of today. Who is genuinely more biblical in their theologizing than Karl Barth? For my money: no one!

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 147 [brackets mine].

[2] Bobby Grow, “Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology, Volume One: The Doctrine of God,” Cultural Encounters 11:2 (2016): 105.

What is God? No. Who is God? The Impasse that Gave Us a Stillborn Evangelical and Reformed Faith

Who is God? Or maybe the question is: What is God? The latter question is what the Post Reformed orthodox theologians were concerned with, and it is this question that we receive an answer for in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. But I am actually more interested in who God is. I’d rather allow who God is to define what God is, rather than allowing what God is to define who He is. The former presupposes that God is personal and revelatory, while the latter could simply operate off of a conception of God or Godness that could potentially be impersonal and discoverable. And yet because the Post Reformed orthodox or classical Calvinist theologians were attempting to answer what God is, this allowed them to slip back into an approach to the God of the Bible that did not necessarily have to start with the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus Christ in order to arrive at the categories it required to grammarize or speak of God for the church. As such, I would contend, the God articulated, say by the WCF, and the ‘what God’ therein, actually offers a rather distorted picture of the God of the Bible in a God-world relation since methodologically it reverts back to a speculative philosophical and a priori conceiving of God and brings that to the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus Christ; and attempts to synthesize the God conception say conceived of by someone like Aristotle with the God of the Bible. Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink summarize this issue nicely when they write:

Through the ages many have tried to synthesize the Greek-philosophical approach to the content of the biblical faith, but these attempts were rarely successful, as the philosophy usually received priority (Augustine being a positive exception). The most impressive example is found in the theology of Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century). However, twentieth-century research has shown that the biblical-theological dimension of Aquinas’s doctrine of God was much more extensive and decisive than had long been assumed. Nonetheless, Aquinas saw the ideas of Aristotle in particular as a significant tool. Arabic scholars were instrumental in rediscovering Aristotle’s work, and Aquinas and others gratefully employed it for the Christian doctrine of God. Aquinas starts with the general question about the being, properties, and acts of God, so that who God is (or is not) is in the first instance discussed with reference to the classic answers of Aristotle’s metaphysics, while the section about God’s interaction with the world uses more biblical language. However, when he deals with the specifically Christian concept of God in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity, Aquinas offers a speculative, philosophical interpretation of the immanent Trinity rather than foregrounding the biblical stories about the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This is also true for many other representatives of medieval Scholasticism.

Among the Reformers, Calvin and especially Luther were very critical of the concepts and speculative character of the scholastic doctrine of the Trinity. But apparently this critique was soon forgotten. Numerous theologians of later Protestant orthodoxy (between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries) adopted the pattern of medieval scholastic thought without much further ado, including its basis in a general , highly transcendent view of God in the locus de Deo. Their preferred description of God is that of an eternal and infinite spiritual being, adding only toward the end any reference to a number of properties regarding God’s turn toward us. This pattern is also visible in the confessional documents of the era. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647), for instance, defines God as “a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (question 4), a statement that, as late as the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Hodge could praise as “probably the best definition of God ever penned by man” (ST: 1:367). It should be noted, however, that this definition is given in reply to the question “What is God? (not “Who is God?”), as is typical of post-Reformation orthodoxy.[1]

This issue continues to dog the development of contemporary “Reformed” theology, and even evangelical theology that operates from that mood as is typified in the work being done for the churches by The Gospel Coalition.

It seems to me that many in the evangelical and contemporary Reformed church, particularly in the West, want to stick with what they see as the tried and true path; what some have referred to as the old paths. But my question is this: as those regulated, in principle, by the Scripture principle—referring to us Protestants—why is there a type of slavish need to be in lock-step with theological reflection that operated in and from a 16th and 17th century milieu wherein Aristotle primarily gets to define what the grammar should be for articulating God for the church of Jesus Christ? It is as if the Confessions and Cathechisms of the Protestant Reformed church have become the new magisterium of the church; that Protestants haven’t just replaced a personal Pope for a paper one (i.e. the Scriptures), but that they have succumbed to the idea that the tradition of the latter day Protestant Reformed church (16th and 17th centuries) was given by God providentially. Yet if this is so what has happened to the ‘scripture principle’ for us Protestants? If we want to absolutize the theology of say the Westminster Confession of Faith as the most proper distillation of the Bible’s teaching, then in what material way can a distinction be drawn between the theology of that Confession and the teaching of Scripture itself? In what meaningful way, if indeed we want to absolutize certain Reformed Confessions, can we maintain that all of the Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformed church are indeed subordinate to Holy Scripture? I don’t think we can.

What Kooi and Brink highlight for us is that there is a problem, in regard to the development of a doctrine of God, for the Protestant Reformed church; both in the past and presently. A mentor and former professor of mine, Ron Frost, argued similarly to Kooi and Brink’s point about a kind of still birth relative to the Protestant Reformation; i.e. a betrayal of the type of critique that Luther made in regard to the substance metaphysics funding late medieval theology relative to a doctrine of God (the metaphysics of Aristotle as deployed and appropriated by Thomas Aquinas et al.). Here is what Frost has to say:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[2]

We see his concern is the same as Kooi and Brink’s. What we also see is that beyond simply focusing on the problem that Aristotle’s categories bring in regard to a doctrine of God (i.e. Kooi and Brink), Frost rightly highlights the linkage that Luther saw between Aristotle’s God and subsequent teachings in regard to developing a theological anthropology and ethics. And this is the point I want to drive home in closing: what we think about God, in regard to who we think God is, determines every other subsequent theological development after that commitment. In other words, a doctrine of God, in a proper dogmatic and theological ordering (taxis) of things is of basic and first order value; who we understand him to be will dictate the way we come to theological conclusions later, whether that be in regard to theological anthropology, salvation, or what have you. This is why I press on this issue so much, it is that central. And I believe that the starting point for so much of what counts as Reformed and evangelical theology today is eschew; and I think it is eschew precisely at the point that this post is highlighting. God help us!

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 134-35.

[2] R.N. Frost, “Aristotle’s “Ethics:” The “Real” Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal (18:2) 1997, p. 224-25.

Beating a Dead Horse that Has Nine Lives: Pure Being Theology and its Antidote in [Onto]Relational Theology Proper

I have written on this before, but I thought I would broach, once again, the issue of Pure Being theology as understood within the exegetical tradition of the Protestant Reformed church. Here Kooi and Brink offer an inchoate critique of Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of the tetragrammaton (the ‘I am that I am’ statement) in Exodus 3.14. Their mini-critique is one that I agree with, and then the constructive offering that they provide in the whole of the quote is worthwhile:

In accordance with the special character of the divine name, traditional dogmatics has ascribed the property of life (vita) to God. God is, first of all, the Living One. In actual fact we must say that only God lives in the true sense of the word and that our life is a derived and temporal existence that originates in “the fountain of life” (Ps 36:9; cf. Acts 17:28). In this connection Amandus Polanus remarks that in God vita and vivere—the noun (life) and the verb (to live)—coincide (Heppe, RD 5.10). This combination points to a dynamic quality, the same quality that strikes us in Exod 3. Those who with Aquinas (STh I.13.11) follow the Septuagint and render the divine names as “he who is” (qui est), and on that basis define God as the true being (ipsum esse), do not do full justice to this dynamism and make the image of God too static. It becomes quite clear from the context of Exod 3:14 that God promises Moses his saving presence and involvement. Today many Old Testament scholars see shades of meanings other than “being” and “living” in the stem of this verb but these also contain the same connotations of dynamism and involvement (e.g., Feldmeier and Spieckermann 2011, chaps. 1, 29).[1]

This is actually a common critique of Aquinas’s conception of God, and then as corollary, a critique of the Post Reformed orthodox conception of God; insofar as the Post Reformed orthodox pick up this understanding of God from their respective reception[s] of Aquinas’s doctrine of God—particularly as the idea of ‘being’ in the Aristotelian frame is used to fund the Post Reformed orthodox’s theology proper.

But so what? The reason I keep coming back to this over and over and over again is because I obviously think it is a very important point. Yes, contemporary classically Reformed theologians are clearly aware of this critique; as are neo-Thomist theologians. But they simply claim that this just is not so in Aquinas’s nor the PRo’s theologies. But I disagree with their assertion. My disagreement is based upon the reality that PRo theology must continuously refer to the decretum absolutum and the decretal conception of God in order to have the capacity to talk about God’s relationship to the world. In other words they don’t have the ability to speak of God/world relation, at a first order level, in a dynamic-relational grammar or conceptuality; and this is precisely because they start with a concept of God that is indeed necessarily static (at least ad extra or insofar as God relates to creation in the economy of his triune life).

Again, if this is so, at a practical or orthopraxis level, people will think of God and their relation to him, and his relation to them in like terms. In other words, they will think of God in ways that are not, at a first order level, relational or personal or intimate in orientation. Some people might think this is a good thing; that it helps to honor the integrity of the Creator/creature distinction by levying a buffer, as it were, between God and humanity—i.e. by elevating or emphasizing God’s transcendence over his creation. This might be so, and even necessary, if God was a philosophical monad who simply doted over his creation from the heavenlies. But this is not so, God freely chose, as all Christians recognize, to ‘come down’ to us; he chose to be for us, and he chose to be for us from his inner life as God. He chose to meet us from the inner reality of his life as Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit, as the Son in obedience to the Father elected humanity for himself so it could finally be said of God that he is: Immanuel, ‘God with us.’

The most fiduciary reading of God, as disclosed and borne witness to in the Scriptures themselves, then, would be as Kooi and Brink intone, to understand God in relational and dynamic terms; this would be against, in some important ways, the way Christians in the West, in particular, have come to think of God in the Aristotelian/Thomist frame.

 

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 122-23.

Not the Binity But the Trinity: The Holy Spirit’s Place in the Life of God

The Holy Spirit, unless you’re a Pentecostal or Charismatic, is often left in the background somewhere in theological discussion. Never mind that John Calvin has been called the ‘theologian of the Spirit’ or the fact that Colin Gunton made great appeal to the Spirit in his doctrine of creation, or that folks like my friend and Evangelical Calvinist colleague, has edited books devoted to Third Article Theology; the Spirit, in my experience anyway, is often under-referenced in the Reformed circles I have contact with when discussing things theological. And maybe some of this is actually by design: I mean the Holy Spirit’s ministry is to magnify the person and work of Jesus Christ; so He, by His person (hypostasis) stands in the background. As T Torrance was fond of highlighting, the Holy Spirit comes along for us with the coming of the eternal Son in the Incarnation; in other words, the Spirit comes with the Son for us, indeed he paves the way (think of the overshadowing of the waters in Genesis [protology – creation] or the overshadowing of Mary’s womb in Luke [eschatology – recreation]).

The aforementioned noted, the Holy Spirit was given his rightful place in the development of the Trinitarian theology that took was given expression in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. Kooi and Brink highlight this especially well when they write:

The question might be posed as to why, between 325 and 381, the view arose to describe the Spirit too as being of one essence (“consubstantial”) with the Father and the Son. Was that not a little too much of a good thing? Was a binitarian concept that safeguarded Jesus’s divinity not complicated enough? It was precisely in the fourth-century controversy with those who doubted the divinity of the Spirit that it became clear that the Trinitarian concept was not to be relinquished. It was not based just on some Bible texts that linked the Spirit to God; it had much more to do with the pneumatological insight developing in the early church that we human beings do not have the Spirit at our disposal and that we cannot manipulate the Spirit. A spirit that does not issue from God would automatically be on the side of the creatures and open to such manipulation. Nor would such a spirit be able to genuinely connect us with God. We would be left out on our own. Only because the Spirit is radically on God’s side is he able, through the Son, to incorporate us into communion with the Father. However, this work can happen only if the Spirit belongs fully, as a distinct person, to the divine essence. This soteriological insight played a major role in the labors of Athanasius and the Cappadocians and would eventually lead to the confession that the Spirit “is Lord and gives life” and must “be worshiped and glorified together with the Father and the Son” (the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, an expansion of the Nicene Creed; hereafter we will refer to both forms simply as the Nicene Creed).[1]

I like how they highlight that the Holy Spirit indeed is God of God; i.e. that He is indeed a hypostasis within the Godhead (Monarxia), and as such is Lord (cf. II Cor. 3.17). He is not an energy or a spark within humanity, He finds His reality in the eternal relation and coinhering life of the Father, Son, and indeed, the Holy Spirit.

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 94-5.

A Disjointed Blog Post on the Ontological and Economic Trinity, Something of a Teaser

I wrote a whole spate of posts when the Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) was happening online; as did others. But I thought I would revisit this issue, although not directly, by engaging with something two contemporary Dutch theologians have written on eternal generation and the doctrine of the Trinity. I would have to say, out of all things theological, the doctrine of the Trinity and Christology (and how that implicates soteriology) get me going the most. So as I read the following from Kooi and Brink my excitement level was piqued which is what is energizing me to write this post.

What they offer here is something that both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance would say amen to; indeed it is the embracing of what Karl Rahner somewhat championed by asserting (and arguing) that the immanent (or ontological) Trinity is the economic Trinity. In other words, who we see revealed by the eternal Son of God in Christ in temporal history is who God is antecedently in always already reality in his inner eternal life in the Divine Monarxia as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a purely non-speculative cataphatic approach to knowledge of God; wherein the concentration on who God is comes within the Athanasian frame which Thomas Torrance adopted for himself as Paul Molnar explicates for us:

Torrance’s view of God the Creator was strictly determined by his Trinitarian theology so that, in order to understand his explication of the doctrine of creation, it is important to realize that his thinking remains structured by Athanasius’ insight that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate”. What this means is not only that, following the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius stressed the centrality of the Father/Son relation for understanding God the Father Almighty who is the Creator, but that he wanted to stress that this same relation must have “primacy over the Creator/creature relation. The latter is to be understood in the light of the former and not vice versa”. Or, to put it another way, “while God is always Father he is not always Creator” and “it is as Father that God is Creator, not vice versa”. . . .[1]

This is rich, and a quote I actually used in my chapter for our first EC book.

You know what? I’m going to simply use this post as a teaser. The quote I want to share from Kooi and Brink is too long for me to transcribe tonight. But just know that its thrust is in keeping with the way Molnar describes Torrance’s Trinitarian theology relative to the relationship between the ontological and economic Trinity. I realize that this post now seems disjointed, but just remember, this is a blog post.

[1] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian Of The Trinity, (Ashgate Publishing Limited, England, 2009), 73.

Doctrine of God: Let There Be No Daylight Between the Being and Persons of God. Kooi and Brink

As I underscored and wrote upon how the Being (ousia) of God has been separated from the Persons (hypostases) of God in many medieval and Post Reformed orthodox treatments of the doctrine of God in my personal chapter for our volume one Evangelical Calvinism book, I am happy to see that Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink do not follow this type of disjunction in their just released Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction. They would be critical then, as I am, of Katherine Sonderegger’s approach and return back to this more classic rendition of developing a doctrine of God; i.e. by starting with God’s oneness and only later getting to his threeness, as if we could think them apart in any meaningful way as Christ[ians]. Here is what Kooi and Brink have to say about this (in extenso):

We join then this recent turn in asserting that the doctrine of God, with the related treatment of the divine attributes, must be approached from the basis of the doctrine of the divine attributes, must be approached from the basis of the doctrine of the divine Trinity. There there can be no misunderstanding that, speaking from a Christian perspective, God can be thought of only as the Trinity; the Christian church confesses no other God than the Father of Jesus Christ in communion with the Holy Spirit. In that sense the doctrine of the Trinity may be regarded as the Christianized version of the doctrine of God. The church does not worship an anonymous Supreme Being but the God who has made a name for himself in Israel and has gotten a face in Jesus Christ. The divine attributes will also have to be viewed and studied from this perspective, for they do not concern—as has often been suggested—a “universal” divine being, but the triune God. This perspective implies, that right from the start, these attributes must be colored and interpreted by God’s sovereign turn toward us human beings in the history of Israel, Jesus Christ, and the Spirit.[1]

And then in small print[2], just following, this Kooi and Brink dig further into the way the being of God has been spoken of in abstraction from his persons,

There are numerous examples in history [sic] of studies that first deal at length with the attributes before getting to the doctrine of the Trinity, but the paradigmatic cases are Thomas Aquinas (STh I.2–26 and 27–43) and Schleiermacher (CF, paras. 170–72); yet he judiciously suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity needs to be constructed anew from the oldest sources). The sharp criticism of Karl Rahner (e.g., in Feiner and Löhrer, MS 2:317–97) on how the theological tradition has split apart the tractates  De Deo trino and De Deo uno (“On the triune God” and “On the one God”) has become famous. But even Berkhof stays with this tradition. Being disappointed with its classical form, he even decided toward the end of his life to incorporate the doctrine of the Trinity in his doctrine of God at all but to deal with it at the end of his treatment of the doctrine of Christ (CF, paras. 19–23 and 38).

In Calvin’s Institutes the attributes receive little attention, and the doctrine of the Trinity much more. Calvin wanted to stay close to the Bible and practical faith and feared the “idle speculations” that would arise if we isolate various elements of the doctrine of God and make them stand alone. His dictum was, “Hence it is obvious, that in seeking God, the most direct path and fittest method is, not to attempt with presumptuous curiosity to pry into his essence, which is rather to be adored than minutely discussed, but to contemplate him in his works, by which he draws near, becomes familiar, and in a manner communicates himself to us” (Inst. 1.5.9). In his own doctrine of God, therefore, Calvin focused to a large extent on the doctrine of the Trinity, which over time he accepted as fully biblical (1.13; see also Letham 2004, 253, 265, 267–68). In the twentieth century many followed Barth’s example by prioritizing the doctrine of the Trinity over a discussion of the divine attributes (e.g. Genderen and Velema, CRD 143–64 and 164–92; see also 135), but few did so as consistently as Wolfhart Pannenberg (ST 1, chap. 6, as sequel to and colored by chap. 5) and Robert Jenson (ST 1, esp. chaps. 4–9 and 13). See above, chapter 2, for the consequences of mixing the Christian doctrine of God with philosophical ideas about God, which became the target of the prominent critics of religion in the nineteenth century.[3]

To continue to press this let me share a quote I used in my chapter from Thomas Torrance; it is an interesting quote, particularly because while agreeing with Kooi and Brink, in the main, Torrance would appear to disagree with their assessment of Calvin. But the primary reason I am sharing this, for our purposes, is simply to reinforce this type of critique relative to the artificial separating of God’s oneness (‘being’) from his threeness (‘persons’). So Torrance,

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

You might be wondering why this is important, at this point; it has to do with the topic of a recent post of mine on apophatic versus cataphatic theology. When theologies start with the oneness or ‘being of God’ over against the threeness or ‘persons of God’ they are typically taking the apophatic approach to knowing God. They are starting with a discursive rather than concrete way to God; using philosophical categories that conceive of Godness prior to being confronted by that in the definitional reality of His own Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It potentially gives us a God, the approach under critique in this post, that is abstract and personally removed from his creation; who is not easily understood as a ‘relational’ and dynamic God.

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 78-9.

[2] The small print is a stylistic move used throughout Kooi’s and Brink’s Christian Dogmatics with the purpose of providing more detailed analyses of various loci. It is reminiscent of how Karl Barth used his footnote sections (his “small print”) to accomplish the same thing.

[3] Kooi and Brink, Christian Dogmatics, 79.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 3–4 cited by Bobby Grow, “Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis?: Either Through Christ or Through Nature,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 110.

God’s Personal, Dynamic and Relational Being: His Ousia is Parousia. Thomas Torrance’s Hebraic Model for Thinking God

The ‘being’ (ousia) of God is largely, is hugely important when it comes to differentiating what we are doing in Evangelical Calvinism versus classical (Federal) Calvinism. If you peruse my blog you might find that addressing this point is something of a theme by now. In order to keep in theme I thought I would post another post that engages with what I would claim, despite those who protest this, that Post Reformed orthodox theology operates from a Pure Being theology and doctrine of God. In other words, even though folks like Richard Muller argue otherwise, it is very hard to see how this just is not the case. What Pure Being theology (like that produced by appropriating classical philosophy with Christian theology i.e. Aristotle et al.) gives us is a God who must engage with his creation through impersonal decrees; he must somehow keep himself untouched by his creation. We end up with an impersonal God who engages with us through laws and decrees, and not with the personal touch we might expect a God who is Triune love to engage his creation with. Here is how Richard Muller argues this:

Etienne Gilson makes the very pointed remark, in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, that the great source and starting-point of all medieval discussion of the being and essence of God is not Greek philosophy in general or Aristotle in particular, but Moses—in Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” Nor ought we to attribute the use of Exodus 3:14 as a reference to the being of God as a result of ignorance of Hebrew and dependence on the sum qui sum of the Latin Vulgate. We read, for example, in the Guide for the Perplexed of Moses Maimonides,

God taught Moses how to teach them and how to establish amongst them the belief in the existence of Himself, namely, by saying Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, a name derived from the verb hayah in the sense of “existing,” for the verb hayahdenotes “to be,” and in Hebrew no difference is made between verbs “to be” and “to exist.” The principle point in this phrase is that the same word which denotes “existence” is repeated as an attribute…. This is, therefore, the expression of the idea that God exists, but not in the ordinary sense of the term; or, in other words, He is “existing being which is the existing Being,” that is to say, the Being whose existence is absolute.

Of the Holy Name, Maimonides adds, “the tetragrammaton … is not an appellative; it does not imply anything except his existence. Absolute existence includes the idea of eternity, i.e., the necessity of existence.” The point must be made, with respect to Gilson’s remarks, that however much the classical philosophical heritage influenced scholastic formulation, the form that the influence took and, indeed, the medieval interpretation of the classical sources, was in large measure determined by biblical exegesis—and that, granting the Greek philosophical sources of medieval Jewish and Christian conceptions of God, those sources, taken by themselves, do not by themselves account for either the theology or the metaphysics of the medieval thinkers.

We must take exception to often-uttered claims that descriptions of God in terms of “substance” and “essence” lead ineluctably “to the unfruitful abstractions of the conception of God in Greek philosophy,” or that language such as that of Aquinas concerning God as “supremely existent” (maximè ens) is a “Grecian” as opposed, presumably, to a “religious conception of God.” Such claims assume, first, that discussion of the divine essence is a fundamentally Greek enterprise (if Gilson and Maimonides are correct, it is not) — and second, quite arbitrarily, that abstraction is both characteristically Greek and quite “unfruitful” and, in addition, is somehow divorced from the “religious conception of God.” We ought not to accept any of these comments uncritically, nor ought we to suppose that the medieval development of concepts of God as willing, as thinking, as loving, and as, by nature, spirit (none of which are without “religious” implication), can be severed in a facile manner from the issue of the divine being or essence.[1]

Okay, so we see Muller among many of his contemporaries claiming that the classic Reformed were just doing good biblical exegesis and not borrowing their conceptual apparatus from the Greek philosophers. But when you actually read Reformed theology, particularly in the 16th and 17 centuries, and even now as that gets repristinated in the 21st century, it makes you wonder how Muller et al. can claim what they do.

As an alternative T.F. Torrance highlights the role that the Hebraic mind and categories played in early ecumenical thinking when it came to conceiving of God by way of his Self-naming to his covenant people. This is ironic, really, because Torrance is addressing the same tetragrammaton context that Muller is; yet they arrive at totally different conclusions. Here is what Torrance has to say in this regard:

I have been directing considerable attention Hebraic way of understanding I am or ἐγώ εἰμί of God to which the Early Church so often appealed in seeking to understand the Being or οὐσία of God, for it is very different from the static metaphysical notion of essence or substance found in the Greek philosophical tradition. The Being of God, known only in the fellowship created through his personal self-naming, self-affirming and self-giving to his people, is the living dynamic Being (zwsa kai energhtikh οὐσία) of God’s redeeming presence to them, with them and for them. It is to be understood not simply in terms of the self-grounded Being of God, but as the Being of God for others with whom he seeks and creates fellowship, although that is to be regarded as flowing freely from the ground and will of his own transcendent Self-Being. While the Being of God is not to be understood as constituted by his relation to others, the free outward flowing of his Being in gratuitous love toward and for others reveals to us something of the inmost nature of God’s Being, as at once transcendent and immanent — God in the highest and God with us and for us, the divine ousia being understood as parousia and the divine parousia being understood as ousia. Hence it may be said that the Being of God is to be understood as essentially personal, dynamic and relational Being. The real meaning of the Being or I am of God becomes clear in the two-way fellowship he freely establishes with his people as their Lord and Saviour, for it has to do with the saving will or self-determination of God in his love and grace to be with them as their God as well as his determination of them to be with him as his redeemed children.[2]

There is a deep personalism informing the type of Trinitarian conception of God’s Being that Torrance describes and develops for us. Not of the existentialist type that so many classical theologians worry about today, particularly when it comes to modern theology in general, or maybe even Barth and Torrance in particular. The personalism that Torrance pushes us into is informed by what we find the ecumenical Patristic theologians working with; one that is oriented from the type of Hebraic mode of thought that Torrance alerts us to. A personalism that is truly relational insofar as that relationship is defined by God in his inner and eternal life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit which we are then included within by way of God’s gracious and free choice to be for us and with us which allows us to be eternally within him in the Son, Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

While much of this might sound academic, it really isn’t. It has profoundly pastoral and practical implications for someone’s daily spirituality. Who we think God is determines everything else downstream, even how we live before and with God. Who God is will impact what it means to be creatures in the image of God; it will determine the way we understand grace and what it means to have grace in the conversation of our Christian lives; both in the church and outside of it. These are not merely academic platitudes; they are real life and significant issues for every single Christian and non-Christian alike. How we understand God, and who we understand him to be, and from whence find basis for that will determine everything else.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Divine Essence and Attributes, Volume Three.  The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 50-1.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 123-24.

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

John writes of God:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Name of God in Exodus 3:14: How Revelation Trumps Speculative ‘Being’ Theology. Richard Muller and Emil Brunner in Critical Conference

Who is God? How can we know God? These are some of the most profound questions humanity can engage with. In the history of Christian ideas there has, of course, been an attempt to answer these types of questions as faithfully as possible. Because of the nature of God, and his ineffability, there is almost a grasping by many in an attempt to un-pack who God is in an articulate and maimonidesintelligible way. This is what we see taking place not just in the early church Patristic theology, but also in the spirit of that, in the Medieval church as well. The problem with being pushed up against an ultimate, like the living God, is that, again, people will take desperate measures in an attempt to talk God.

More forcefully, I will contend that in the medieval and post reformed orthodox theologian’s zeal to talk God they adopted philosophical talk about God and forcefully linked that talk with what we are provided with by Holy Scripture. One prime example of this is described by Richard Muller as he attempts to (artificially) argue that in fact the philosophical substance metaphysics of the medievalists and post reformed orthodox was not really a philosophical imposition upon God—when they attempted to talk about God’s inner-life, his being (ousia)—but instead there was an exegetical/biblical correlation which was driving their metaphysical thinking in regard to the inner-reality of who God is in himself. Muller identifies Exodus 3:14, where we encounter the tetragrammaton, and self naming of God as the touchstone passage appealed to in order to establish this exegetical linkage: “14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” As Muller notes it is here where we are confronted with a correlation between the philosophers conceiving of God as ‘being’, and God’s revelation of himself and his self-being. Muller writes:

Etienne Gilson makes the very pointed remark, in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, that the great source and starting-point of all medieval discussion of the being and essence of God is not Greek philosophy in general or Aristotle in particular, but Moses—in Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” Nor ought we to attribute the use of Exodus 3:14 as a reference to the being of God as a result of ignorance of Hebrew and dependence on the sum qui sum of the Latin Vulgate. We read, for example, in the Guide for the Perplexed of Moses Maimonides,

God taught Moses how to teach them and how to establish amongst them the belief in the existence of Himself, namely, by saying Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, a name derived from the verb hayah in the sense of “existing,” for the verb hayah denotes “to be,” and in Hebrew no difference is made between verbs “to be” and “to exist.” The principle point in this phrase is that the same word which denotes “existence” is repeated as an attribute…. This is, therefore, the expression of the idea that God exists, but not in the ordinary sense of the term; or, in other words, He is “existing being which is the existing Being,” that is to say, the Being whose existence is absolute.

Of the Holy Name, Maimonides adds, “the tetragrammaton … is not an appellative; it does not imply anything except his existence. Absolute existence includes the idea of eternity, i.e., the necessity of existence.” The point must be made, with respect to Gilson’s remarks, that however much the classical philosophical heritage influenced scholastic formulation, the form that the influence took and, indeed, the medieval interpretation of the classical sources, was in large measure determined by biblical exegesis—and that, granting the Greek philosophical sources of medieval Jewish and Christian conceptions of God, those sources, taken by themselves, do not by themselves account for either the theology or the metaphysics of the medieval thinkers.

We must take exception to often-uttered claims that descriptions of God in terms of “substance” and “essence” lead ineluctably “to the unfruitful abstractions of the conception of God in Greek philosophy,” or that language such as that of Aquinas concerning God as “supremely existent” (maximè ens) is a “Grecian” as opposed, presumably, to a “religious conception of God.” Such claims assume, first, that discussion of the divine essence is a fundamentally Greek enterprise (if Gilson and Maimonides are correct, it is not) — and second, quite arbitrarily, that abstraction is both characteristically Greek and quite “unfruitful” and, in addition, is somehow divorced from the “religious conception of God.” We ought not to accept any of these comments uncritically, nor ought we to suppose that the medieval development of concepts of God as willing, as thinking, as loving, and as, by nature, spirit (none of which are without “religious” implication), can be severed in a facile manner from the issue of the divine being or essence.[1]

But is this really the case? Does Exodus 3:14 provide focus on the ‘being’ of God in such a way that it opens God up to being correlated with the concept of ‘being’ that the philosophers developed by their own wits? This is what Muller is attempting to argue in a smoke-and-mirrors fashion.

Contrariwise and rightfully so, almost as if Emil Brunner was responding directly to Muller, Brunner writes this in 1946:

The idea of the “Name of God” plays almost no part in the theology of the Early Church, or of the Mediaevil Church, in the Biblical sense of the word. On the other hand, it plays a very dubious part, since the Name which was made known on Sinai, especially the interpretation given in (Exodus 3:14) of the Name “I AM ThAT I AM”, was adopted by speculative theology and made the foundation of its identification of speculative ontology with the Biblical Idea of God. There are possibly few passages in the Scriptures which have been quoted and expounded more often in mediaeval theology than this phrase. Even the Fathers of the Church used it: for instance, Athanasius (Epistula de synodis, 35); Hilary (De Trin. L, I, nr. 5); Gregory Nazianzen (Orationes, 30, 18), and many others. … The real trouble, however, only started with the penetration of the Neo-Platonic idea of the identification of the summum esse and the summum bonum, that is through Augustine … (De Trin. 7, 5, 10). Augustine believes that he has found the point at which the Bible and Plato say the same thing: “Vehementer hoc Plato tenuit et diligentissime commendavit.” No one ever said this before Plato save in this passage in the Book of Exodus (De Civ. Dei, VIII, II). Maritain, indeed, is right when—speaking of this text, understood in this sense, he says: “Such passages contain virtually the whole Thomist doctrine of the Divine Names and of the analogy” (La sagesse augustinienne, p. 405).

In reality the Biblical text does not say this at all. Quite apart from the fact that the interpretation of the Name of Yahweh in the sense of E plays no part in the whole of the Old Testament, and “the honour given to the Name of Yahweh is completely independent of its etymology” (Grether, op. cit., p. 15), even the interpretation given in the E is quite different from that of “the One who IS”, or even “Being”. (In addition to Grether, see also Eichrodt, op. cit., I, pp. 91ff.). Even the Septuagint rendering contains a hint of philosophical suggestion which is entirely absent from the Hebrew text. “The Tetragrammaton lays the stress not upon God’s Being as He is in Himself, but upon His Being as it comes forth in revelation, not upon the Deus absolutus, but upon the Deus revelatus” (Grether, p. 7). The mediaeval use of the general interpretation of the Name of Yahweh (in the sense of E) has led to quite disastrous misunderstanding. The chapters in this book which deal with the Being of God and His Attributes, in their opposition to the mediaeval ontology, will show on what my opinion is based. It would be well worth while to write a critical historical account of the exposition of Exodus 3:14.

It is not only the Name of Yahweh, however, expounded in a speculative manner, which plays an important—though essentially negative—part in mediaeval scholastic theology, but also the notion of the Divine Names. Here, too, the “Areopagite” was a pioneer. His work, De Divinis  nominibus, founded a school of thought. But what he discusses (in this book) under the title of the “Names of God”, has nothing to do with what the Bible says about the Name of God. In this book the author is dealing with the question: To what extent are the ideas with which we, by means of thought, can try to conceive the Divine Being, adequate for the task? Naturally the answer is entirely negative: God is the One who cannot be named; all our ideas are inadequate. The Divine Nature is unspeakable. Certainly, just as the Divine Being is “nameless”, so also it can be described by all kinds of names, just as the One who transcends all existence is also the All-existing (I, 6). We can therefore say everything about God as well as nothing.

Thomas Aquinas (Summa theol., I, 13) introduced this doctrine of the Name of God into his system. By the “Name of God” he, too, understands the ideas by means of which we can “think” God: he, too, has nothing to say about the Biblical understanding of the Name of God. He has eliminated the pantheistic element in the Neo-Platonic teaching of his master, it is true, because at every vital point, by means of the idea of causality, he introduces the thought of Creation, which plays no part in the thought of the Areopagite. Through the fact that to him (Aquianas) the creaturely, as God’s creation, is analogous, the creaturely ideas also acquire the validity of analogical truths. But all this remains within the sphere of the speculative theologia naturalis and is therefore diametrically opposed to all that is meant by the Biblical idea of the “Name of God”.[2]

I just provided a lot of context, especially for a blog post, but it is important for the reader to see how Muller is countered. One of the most important aspects of what Brunner just communicated contra, Muller&co., was this clause, “The Tetragrammaton lays the stress not upon God’s Being as He is in Himself, but upon His Being as it comes forth in revelation, not upon the Deus absolutus, but upon the Deus revelatus.” The rest of what Brunner has developed is intended to support this one clause; it is the absolute opposite of what Muller is attempting to argue. What we have in Exodus 3:14 with the “I am”, according to Brunner et al., has to do with God revealing Himself in precisely personal terms; as the God who freely encounters his people by Name. The point was not a metaphysical one, but it is a personal one; one made in the context of God’s covenant with his forthcoming covenant people in the seed of Moses.

If Brunner is correct, and I believe he is!, what Muller is arguing through his appeal to Aquinas, Maimonides, et al. is false. It is a non-starter to impose speculative metaphysical language upon the text of Scripture, and suggest that the inverse is true. In other words, it is a false start to argue that the text of Scripture is what provided for the substance metaphysics of some of the Patristics, Mediaevals, and Post Reformed Orthodox; indeed it is petitio principii, or to beg the question. What we have provided for in Exodus 3:14 is the God who reveals himself by his Name; that’s what we can get from that passage, and we continue to find that type of disclosure over and again throughout the Old Testament finally climaxing in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ (John 1:18).

Who Cares?

Why is this so important? Why have I written a blog post that is twice as long as the longest blog post should be (according to reader’s attention spans)? Because if we get God wrong everything else subsequent is wrong. I contend that Muller and the Post Reformed Orthodox have gotten God wrong, and those who seek to repristinate that theology (such as evangelical and classically Reformed theologians of today) are also getting God wrong. They are emphasizing speculative things about God, about God’s inner life (in se) by appealing to speculative theological categories through the via negativa (‘negative way’), and emphasizing things about God’s being, and his relation to the world in a God/world relation that are false. They have depersonalized God at the very point in Holy Scripture where God seeks to personalize himself by naming himself for his covenant people as Yahweh. They have replaced positive revelation (kataphysic) with speculative inferences about God based upon philosophical speculation that turns God into some sort of ‘Pure Being’ rather than the God who has always already been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; i.e. again they have depersonalized God and his ways at the very point in Scripture where God has made himself known in personal ‘naming’ ways.

If we get God wrong, everything else following is wrong. That’s why this is so important, and should not be papered over. Martin Luther, in particular, understood all of this very well. His theologia crucis, theology of the Cross, is right in line with the observations provided by Brunner. And yet the Post-Reformed Orthodox ‘still-birthed’ (h/t Ron Frost) that whole Luther[an] trajectory by retrieving the type of speculative mediaeval theology that Luther repented of.

If you want to continue to follow this ground swell among young (and some more senior) evangelical and classically Reformed theologians, then that’s your choice; I won’t be there with you. There’s a better way, it’s the way that Brunner describes; it’s the way Luther went (which Brunner develops later); and it’s the way us evangelical Calvinists go.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Divine Essence and Attributes, Volume Three.  The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 50-1.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 128-30.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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