Against Winsomeness Because of God’s Holiness

Someone I know from online recently wrote a viral article for First Things where he gently critiques the approach of Tim Keller. His primary critique was of the ‘winsome’ and purported ‘third wayism’ that Keller has operated with for the last couple of decades, and even further back. My friend, James Wood, made some appeal to sociological analysis as a way into making his critique of Keller. In nuce, the argument was that Keller’s winsome approach may have had some resonance in the last decade or so, but that we have moved into times that aren’t as receptive to Christian “niceness.” Indeed, Wood has critiqued further that the Keller approach may have never been an effective strategy of outreach to begin with (or maybe that’s just me reading my own hagiography into these things).

I’m going to be blunter (what’s new). Things seem less nuanced than this to me, even though I understand that people convinced of being “faithfully present” and winsome won’t have ears to hear this (at least until the Eschaton). As I read the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, what I find is a God who, while Fatherly and Lovely, doesn’t shrink back, who doesn’t “contextualize” in such a way that He comes off as “winsome” when confronting the sins of His people; not to mention the sins of the world in general. Indeed, when God confronts sin, whether that be in the OT or NT, it always involves blood and judgment. Some might push back and say: “well, that’s because God accommodated Himself to the Ancient Near Eastern culture His covenant people inhabited, and mediated judgment, under His theocracy, under the strictures dictated by said conventions and customs of the time.” Indeed, but He established the New Covenant in the blood of Christ, and that remains the reality, with the scars in Jesus’ hands, feet, and side in tow for all eternity. In other words, even though the once and for all bloody sacrifice has been made for all of humanity, it is this sacredly shed blood that stills cries out as the blood of the Sacrifice, the blood of the Passover that always already confronts and contradicts us sinners with the very life and power of God as witness both against us even as He is for us. In other words, He is indeed, as Barth underscores, the ‘Judge judged,’ but since we remain ‘simultaneously justified and sinner’ until we are finally rescued from these ‘bodies of death,’ since we continue to inhabit a battled-body that is fighting between the things of the Spirit and the things of the flesh, God in Christ by the Holy Spirit confronts us, He persuades and convinces us, He convicts us of our sin, constantly, calling us to the repentance that Christ first won for us in His vicarious humanity. So, because God loves us, because He is merciful and gracious, He doesn’t leave us in the squirminess of our sins; note:

Again the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Son of man, cause Jerusalem to know her abominations, and say, ‘Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: “Your birth and your nativity are from the land of Canaan; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. As for your nativity, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed in water to cleanse you; you were not rubbed with salt nor wrapped in swaddling cloths.  No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you, to have compassion on you; but you were thrown out into the open field, when you yourself were loathed on the day you were born. “And when I passed by you and saw you struggling in your own blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ Yes, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I made you thrive like a plant in the field; and you grew, matured, and became very beautiful. Your breasts were formed, your hair grew, but you were naked and bare. “When I passed by you again and looked upon you, indeed your time was the time of love; so I spread My wing over you and covered your nakedness. Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine,” says the Lord God. “Then I washed you in water; yes, I thoroughly washed off your blood, and I anointed you with oil. I clothed you in embroidered cloth and gave you sandals of badger skin; I clothed you with fine linen and covered you with silk. I adorned you with ornaments, put bracelets on your wrists, and a chain on your neck. And I put a jewel in your nose, earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen, silk, and embroidered cloth. You ate pastry of fine flour, honey, and oil. You were exceedingly beautiful, and succeeded to royalty. Your fame went out among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through My splendor which I had bestowed on you,” says the Lord God.

God is God. God is Holy, and commands us to be ‘holy as He is Holy.’ In Christ His ‘conversation is with grace seasoned with salt,’ but it is blunt and-in-your-face nonetheless. We might be prompted to think of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well; or maybe Jesus and the moneychangers; or perhaps his tirade against the Pharisees and their “dead man’s bones”; or maybe we might think of the Apostle Paul calling out the guy having potentially incestuous relations with his mom, and handing him “over to satan”; or maybe the way Paul confronted Peter for his hypocrisy in Galatia. Not to mention the brutal reality of the cross of Christ, and the holiness demanded there; or the book of Revelation, with particular reference to chapter 19. Or what about the author to the Hebrews chiding the Hebrew Christians for ‘trampling the blood of Christ under foot and counting it a vain thing?’

The point is that there is an urgency to God’s holiness such that the Christian must bear witness to it in all con-versations of life. We aren’t worried about being winsome, but that doesn’t mean we have to be mean or nasty either. It does mean that we are not of those who shrink back and fail to testify, speaking the truth in love, that God is God, that God is Holy, and demands holiness of all people; that is if people are going to ‘see Him.’ God is gracious and patient with us ‘desiring that none of us perish,’ and it is precisely because of this that the Christian doesn’t waste time thinking of “strategies” in regard to how to relate to the world in non-offensive ways. Indeed, if the Christian is genuinely bearing witness to Christ in the world, they will be considered foolish and weak precisely because the Christian is bearing witness to the scandalous reality of the cross of Christ. At the very crux of the cross God’s holiness is on display, and this is exactly what the world, and cultures writ large find so offensive.

At the end of the day, we all stand before the Lord, even as Christians. There is a Bema judgment seat for Christians, and we will be held to account for what we did with what God has given us in Himself in Jesus Christ. I am uninterested in wasting time, I’m here to redeem the time, and then beatific vision.

Transitioning from a ‘Substance’ to a ‘Personal’ God: Confronting the Substance-Abusers

There is a lot of talk about ‘substance theology’ these days, and in the past days. Indeed, substance language marks classical theism as the way to talk God at least since the days of Thomas [of Aquino], if not further back since the Greeks started using the language of ousia or ‘being’ for talking God (but that was a little different from the Thomist heritage in the sense that they often used ousia as synonymous with hypostases or ‘persons’ and vice versa). No matter what period past to think and talk God in terms of substance has become considered the orthodox way, the way of the consensus fidelium, the way of retrieving all that is holy and orthodox in regard to talking and thinking God. Any verging from substance metaphysics, especially as we have developed into Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment ways, is considered heresy by the faithful. Indeed, if you scan various literature, and even online conjecture, what you will often find in such quadrants is that anyone who attempts to think God in overt ‘personalist’ or personal terms must be some sort of heterodox, at best, and heretic at worst. The label the faithful place on those who would attempt to think and talk God in overtly personalistic terms is: ‘theistic personalism.’ Such people want to claim that said theistic personalists, in regard to talking and thinking God, are nothing better than ‘social Trinitarians,’ thus operating from a panentheist view of God wherein God is thought purely from below to above. This is the charge made against those of us who would fit the so-called theistic personalist label, and yet it fails to recognize the argument of the beard it thinks from; it fails to make distinctions on a continuum; it fails to recognize that God Self-revealed is Father of the Son / Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit—these are ultimately personalizing personal terms and realities ‘revealed’ about who God is. Thusly, it is important to allow such revelation about God to determine the way we think and talk God. And if ‘substance’ language were to be used it would have to be reified by the pressures provided for by the Self-revelation of God, otherwise the “substance-abusers” (haha) would be the ones guilty of a social Trinitarianism; i.e. of importing concepts from below to the above, in regard to God (in fact this is exactly what obtains, I would argue, when such substance-abusers attempt to think God from His effects in the created order; to think God from the so-called analogia entis).

With the aforementioned noted I think it would be interesting to observe how things transitioned from thinking and talking God in terms of substance to subject (or in personalist terms). Eberhard Juengal offers a helpful sketch of how this transition took place in the ‘theology’ of Hegel (which of course post-Hegel would have far-reaching implications towards the development of a so-called ‘modern theology’). Juengal writes:

These distinctions between the three forms of religion are only apparently formal. They have their effect in the content of the religions. This can be shown in the statement about the death of God, which belongs to revealed religion, statement which formulates a precise step of the relationship of being and consciousness, a relationship which is so decisive and full of tension for the history of the spirit. That being which is independent of any other, “. . . that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself,” has been called “substance” ever since Aristotle. It is characteristic of substance that it does not exist in something else. According to Hegel, this distinguishes it from the subject. Whereas substance rests in itself, for Hegel the subject is “the process of positing itself, or in mediating with its own self its transitions from one state or position to the opposite. The subject comes to itself whereas substance has always been in itself. The essence of substance is autonomy, that of the subject is self-movement. Part of the self-movement of the subject is mediation by something else, which for its part is what it is through the subject. And the subject does not lose itself in that other thing, but rather together with that other thing, which exists because of it, it arrives at a freedom which surpasses the autonomy of substance, the freedom of self-consciousness. Therefore, in Hegel’s view, “. . . everything depends on grasping and expressing the ultimate truth not as Substance but as Subject as well.” Only a substance which has become absolute subject and which is understood as absolute subject can be regarded as God. From this point of view, the differentiation of the three forms of religion has taken place. They mark the pathway of the substance toward its being a subject.[1]

If you have ever heard the language Being in Becoming with reference to God, what Juengal describes above, with reference to Hegel, would be where such language and conceptuality comes from. It is this ‘turn’ to ‘Being in Becoming’ that many classical theists maintain results in collapsing God into the modalism of the economic, or the ‘world-being’ (my word), such that God becomes a predicate of His becoming. But even as noted in the sketch of Juengal, this would be wrong-think. For Hegel, according to Juengal, there would be no becoming without the prius of God’s life as “substance,” or antecedent-being. Of course, the type of dialectical inflections this takes in the Hegelian system is a thing of its own imagination, but his development, even as he has described this type of distinction between substance and subject, is not the only or necessary way to think and talk God as ‘Being in Becoming.’

A good reading of Barth’s theology, as Juengal offers in his book God’s Being Is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth, identifies a way to think in potentially “Hegelian” terms without actually becoming (pun intended) Hegelian; just as Barth thinks in Kantian terms without actually becoming Kantian. It is possible to reify grammar, just as the Nicenes did with the Hellenic language (of substance or ousia) at their time, and end up with a linguistic and conceptual sitz im leben wherein the [Hellenic, or Hegelian et al.] ‘text’ simply becomes a pre-text awaiting the re-texting provided for it by an alien reality—in the case of Christian witness, the Kerygma—such that a non-correlationist Christian grammar is produced without the metaphysical baggage that originally gave rise to said grammars in their original (Hellenic, Hegelian, Kantian et al.) contexts. The question always remains: is there a better context-laden grammar out there, that is for thinking and talking God, than other alternatives might offer? This is the question that ought to drive all constructive and Church dogmatic theological endeavor, but it doesn’t. So, instead we end up with the substance-abusers calling the constructivists (which is what Thomas was during his day, by the way) that nastygram: “theistic personalists.”

The point in all of this, for me, and hopefully for you, is to recognize that theology has developments; some good, some bad. But what should be indicated here is that good theology is always already developing, and that it isn’t slavishly domiciled into one supposed ‘sacrosanct period’ of an ostensibly orthodox development of being. God still speaks, in other words: Deus dixit.

 

 

[1] Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World (Eugune, OR: Wipf and Stock Reprint Mohr Sieback, 1983), 80-1.

God is Love. God-in-the-Other in the Far Country According to a Constructive Jüngel

God is love. This is a seemingly simple, but a most profound statement made of God; and it comes to us in a small letter, written to a small people in the whole realm of the Roman Empire. The implications that arise from this reality are rife with a depth dimension that far surpasses the mind’s eye on its own; it requires the sight of faith, the faith of Christ in order to begin to envisage the ineffable scope of it all. God is love. He is this precisely because He is a tri-unity of hypostases in such a way that the interpenetrative relationship inherent to the ‘persons’ shapes the unicity or ‘oneness’ of the ousia of this God. God’s being as One is a being shaped by multiplicity rather than absolute simplicity, as the philosophers would have it. And so, the Christian theologian thinks this God as He has Self-revealed/exegeted Himself for the world in Jesus Christ. It is from this Self-exegesis that the Christian has come to know God as love; as Father of the Son in the bond of the Holy Spirit. From here, the Christian seeking for intelligibility comes to the development of a particular grammar in order to attempt to understand how it is that God is one and three / three and one in correlation with the notion that this relationship in oneness constitutes what in fact love is. That is to say, in order to think ‘God is love’ entails an elucidation of how God’s inner Self-differentation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit constitutes love as the very esse of who God is.

In one modern effort to bring elucidation to the notion that God is love, Eberhard Jüngel presents a rather phenomenological distillation, such that ‘God is love’ might entail an emphasis on how receptivity for the other-in-the-One might be the ground and grammar for giving the intelligibility that the Christian might desire in their pursuit towards knowing God. In the following Bruce McCormack offers a sketch of Jüngel’s treatment, and then provides some constructive critique of his own:

We return to the identity statement “God is love.” This is a true statement because it is in and through God’s act of identification with Jesus that “the being of God realizes itself as love.” It is to be noted just how are removed Jüngel’s conception of divine being is from the idea of “being itself.” It is a relational concept, clearly. More importantly, it refers to a relation that is realized in history, in the event of the cross and resurrection. For this reason, both Jüngel’s Christology and his doctrine of the Trinity find their ontological root in that event. The question of where the being of God is to be found must precede (logically) the question of what the being of God is.

According to Jüngel, God can be love only where God is both “the lover and the beloved at the same time.” To say this much is to suggest that the act of “identification” on the part of God is an act that differentiates God. “God is thus one who loves himself. But this love cannot be misunderstood as the self-love of an I. God differentiates himself in that he loves himself. . . . In John’s language, he is God the Father and God the Son.” 

We have reached the point where the “preunderstanding” of love achieved by Jüngel’s phenomenology begins to fall short as a description of divine love. The uniqueness of the love that God is begins to emerge. The love of the Father for the Son is a sending of the latter into this world “to a certain death.” Why? Because the still greater selflessness of the love that is God cannot be contained. It overflows, so that the Father’s love for the Son is intrinsically, by its very nature, a love for others. Indeed, it is God’s love for these others that motivates the self-differentiating love of God. “God would then be love in that he does not desire to love himself without loving his creature, that absolutely other who is his counterpart. That is the eternal and divine motivation of God’s self-differentiation, apart from which his identity with the man Jesus would not be conceivable.” In any event, the uniqueness of the love God is lies in the fact that it leads to a “separation” of Father and Son in an event in which the Son remains “closer” to the Father “than he is to himself.” “God has himself only in that he gives himself away. But, in giving himself away, he has himself. That is how he is.” So understood, the love that God is, is a love that is self-communicating and self-emptying — even to the point of suffering a death that separates Father and Son.1

The final clause offered by McCormack in regard to the ostensible separation between the Father and the Son that inheres on the cross (at the point of death) takes us further than concerns us in this moment (suffice it to say, BLM gets into that in the following paragraph and beyond). For our purposes what is of interest is the emphasis Jüngel, according to McCormack, places on the inherent Self-differentation between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; one that obtains more classically we might say with reference to the processions or ‘origins of relation’ within the inner-life of God. That is to say, what we see in Jüngel is a classic orientation, but one that focuses on the correlation between the ad extra or outer economic revelation of God as reflective of the antecedent character of God that has always already been the reality.

At the end of the matter, what Jüngel rightly emphasizes, per my lights, is that our knowledge of God as love is, is indeed the ground of our knowledge of God in toto. In other words, according to Jüngel, we only know God as God is freely for us. God is only freely for us as He is for us in the Son in Jesus Christ. It is here where we exclusively have access to know who God is, just as sure as we understand where He comes from in the inner-life of God; and we only know God in this way such that He has come to us, in the ‘far country,’ as the other for us in God’s life. Jüngel, according to McCormack, understands this encounter with God as the only basis by which the Christian might know God. And what this encounter necessarily imposes on the knower that God is love, is precisely because He shows up to us in accord with who He is in His inner-life as the God defined, in his singularity, as the God-in-the-other as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

1 Bruce Lindley McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son: Reformed Kenoticism and the Repair of Chalcedon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 173-74. 

 

God is Love: The Purpose for The Brevity of Our Lives

What is the Christian’s telos? It is to love God, as He first loved us in Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul has written (as inspired by the Holy Spirit): ‘without love it all means nothing’ (my paraphrase). Who is love? According to the letter writer, John: ‘God is love.’ God is love because God is a triunity of persons in singular interpenetrative subject-in-being bliss. So, the Christian’s life is one that is shaped by the participatio Christi that Christ is for us in the resplendence of His eternal relationship with His Father by the Holy Spirit. The Christian has no existence apart from this reality of the fullness of God, as that has been made concrete for us in the skin and bone of the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. The Christian’s life, because of this always already reality of triune love, is one of relational koinonia one with the other; and for the other. We have no being apart from God’s being for us; or being is first imaged for us in the imago Christi, who indeed, from glory to glory, has always already been the image of God for us. It is in the mirror of His election for us, that we might come to reflect His image to each other, in the churches, and to the pagans outwith the Church’s reality. We reflect this type of existence, one foreign to the way of the world, by abiding in Christ, the Vine of God for us. It is as we receive His sustenance, through Immanuel’s veins, through His life-giving blood, charged with the ineffable life of God, the indestructible life, that we have something to offer each other and this world. This love offering has been actualized for us, for the world, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the ascension of the Son of Man now seated at the Right Hand of the Father. The Church and the world, both, need to be confronted by this other-this-worldly reality as that is presented to them in the face of Jesus Christ.

This life is short. It is important to be focused on what lasts. I am impressed this way as I reflect on my dad’s recent passing, as I reflect on the terminal cancer I survived, as I see so many people losing their lives all around. Our mortality is in our faces every moment of everyday. We attempt to quarantine that reality as much as possible and cultivate lives of wantonness in its vacuum. But it’s better to live in reality and understand that we are constantly being given over to the death of Christ that His life might be made manifest through the mortal members of our bodies. In other words, the brevity of life, and surely this is a real brevity, ought to cause the person to focus on what ultimately matters and allow the details of God’s life of love to inform our daily moments as if but a vapor in comparison to His eternal life. We ought to focus on who God is as our Father, and from there live lives that have the purpose of God as its anchor.

I remember what it was like to wake up every morning and for a split second forget that I had an incurable/terminal cancer, and then the shock and horror of the reality would hit me all over again. I haven’t lost this perspective. It haunts me at levels. But the LORD uses this perspective, this inescapable reality that we are dying to remind me that I have life in and from His life; a life in Christ that has already passed from death to resurrection life, of which there is no end. And all of this hopeful purposeful reality is because God is Love.

The Seed of the Classical Theistic God Given Blossom in the god of Modern Atheism

I have been an oft critic of the ‘classical theistic’ god. The classical theistic God is typically known by actus purus, ‘pure being.’ I have argued that this conception of Godness as Monad comes to us from the ancient Greek philosophers, and not from God’s Self-revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ. Some would say that my argument is modern, but that would simply be the chronological snobbery fallacy. Truth has no provenance; that is, truth is truth no matter where or whence it comes. Bruce McCormack describes this sort of critique this way (here his comments are in the context of his treatment on Eberhard Jüngel’s explication of Barth’s doctrine of God): 

The term “essence” in its origins is a class term, descriptive of what is common to all members of a class. As such, it is an abstraction from all exemplars belonging to that class in their lived existence. Applied to God, the qualification was traditionally added: “but, of course, God belongs to no class. God is unique.” But the qualification came too late for it did not qualify the definition of divine essence that had been devised by means of negations alone without reference to God’s existence. Jüngel shows that the classical ambivalence in holding and, at the same time not holding the claim that essence and existence are one in God gave rise in the early modern period to Descartes’ insinuation of the cogito (the “thinking human subject”) between divine “essence” and divine “existence” — thereby creating “a contradiction which disintegrates the being of God: namely, into a highest essence over me and into its existence through and with me.” Ibid., p. 126. From there, it was but a short step for modern thinkers to remove the contradiction through surrender of this highest essence. In this way, the ambivalence of classical treatments of the relation of essence and existence in God made a substantial contribution to the rise of modern atheism.1 

Usually, it is the evangelical opponents of modern theology in favor of their retrieval of classical theism who decries anything modern; like Jüngel’s critique of the classical theistic god. Yet, if Jüngel is right, and McCormack’s commentary on him is to the point, then it is these evangelical retrievers of classical theism who, if anyone, should be ‘demonized’; insofar that the God they are introducing the churches to reduces to the god of modern atheism. Just because the evangelical suitors of classical theism (indeed, they have created that designation) assert that modern theology is demonic, doesn’t make it so. The greatest irony here is that in fact it is the god of classical theism who reduces, quite easily, into the “thinking human subject”; or the god of the modern atheist.  

In my experience, nobody really wants to bite the bullet on these things. Most evangelical theologians today (of the Reformed provenance) simply live in a posture of denial. They feel the pressure to think God from antique roots, because they seem to think God spoke more clearly then than now, but then when a modern theologian[s] shows that the way this God was synthesized with Hellenic conceptualities results in the No-God of modern atheism, they simply deflect and claim that it is the modern theologian who is the devil. Both can’t be right. I’ve never seen an evangelical counter the sort of critique made by people like Jüngel, McCormack et al. There are guys like Craig Carter, Matthew Barrett, Scott Swain and Michael Allen, who are continuously pushing the classical theistic god for the massa of evangelicals out there. But again, this simply glosses past critiques like those made by people like EJ.  

 

1 Bruce Lindley McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son: Reformed Kenoticism and the Repair of Chalcedon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 170-71 n.41.

God’s Eternity and Infinity Thought in Terms of God’s Time in Jesus Christ

I am reading Bruce L. McCormack’s (BLM) new book The Humility of the Eternal Son: Reformed Kenoticism and the Repair of Chalcedon currently. This is the first volume of three forthcoming. BLM has been one of my teachers along the way, in regard to Barth studies in particular, and the constructive theological effort that necessarily follows; BLM, is a premiere voice in constructive theological work After Barth. That said, BLM is not simply a Barth commentator, as this volume portends, he is a constructive theologian in his own right. Indeed, he sort of models the sort of theologian I aspire to be.1 The following will be an excerpt from BLM’s introduction wherein he gives a brief sketch on what it means to think theological proper loci like eternality and infinity from within a center of God’s life for the world in Christ, rather than from the abstract peripheral of the philosopher-theologian-kings. What BLM here treats reflects the sort of narratival biblicist theology that I believe represents a genuine Protestant theology; a theology intensively grounded in the Protestant Scripture Principle, which finds its lifeblood in and from a radically conceived theology of the Logos. McCormack writes:

What that means, among other things, is that terms like “infinity” and “eternity” do not define the being of God; it is rather the being of God in God’s relation to the world in Christ that defines them. To think about the being of God out of a center in God’s lived relation to the world in Christ is to forsake each and every abstractive tendency to treat, for example, the relation of eternity and time as strictly oppositional rather than committing oneself to thinking about God’s eternity as God’s irreducible otherness in God’s relation to time. It is to think of time not as alien to the innermost being of God but as taken up in Jesus Christ into God’s inexhaustible life without detriment to God so that time itself is transformed into the new time of a coming world in which death is no more and the experience of time—and, indeed, of “change”—is no longer controlled by the inevitability of dying. It is to think of eternity not as the negation of time but as both its ground and goal, as its origin and as its redemptive completion.2

BLM, if you know Barth’s Church Dogmatics, is clearly riffing on Barth’s doctrine on ‘new time,’ but in a way that will go beyond Barth (potentially against Barth in certain ways). What BLM writes above is the sort of theological endeavor that I believe leaves so much of the so-called ‘classical’ theology behind (insofar as that is reified by mediaeval categories of synthesis). That is not to say that what BLM is doing here leaves ‘orthodox’ or ‘conciliar’ theology behind, but it is to say that he is having a different [constructive] theological discussion that itself is regulated, even conditioned by a concentrated focus on the Christological categories that ground, what is in my view, a properly conceived theological proper. That is to say, what BLM is presenting, while acknowledging the hard work of the classical theologians, even building on it in particular ways, ends up eliding the ongoing debates in regard to retrieving and receiving say Protestant and/or Catholic scholastic theologies. As the above excerpt reveals, for BLM (and I’d say for me following), to think about God’s eternity or infinity apart from God’s Self-revelation and ‘lived’ life for the world in Jesus Christ is an inconceivable game of theatrics.

Per the material implications of the above quote: when eternity and infinity are thought from ‘a center in God’s lived relation,’ what ends up happening is that the theologian no longer has space to speculate about a ‘God behind the back of Jesus’; that is to say: there is a concreto ground for thinking about God that ironically transcends the philosophers’ efforts to do so abstractly. And as BLM underscores, this ground in God’s life for us, is an eschatological ground that gives time and space its telos from its ultimate reality as that is funded by God’s superabundant life of triune Love.

On the personal side: what this has done for me, that is when I think about God as He has freely chosen for me to do so, from the face of His Son made flesh, is that I no longer get lost in the twists and tangles of speculating about a notion of Godness that I may have artificially conceived of as I peer up at the seemingly limitless heavens. I have a face (prosopon) to look at when I think God; a face that looks like mine, but is distinct from mine, even as the Creator is distinct from the creature. I can look at the veil of God’s hiddenness, in the flesh of the Son’s humanity, and by a Spirit-formed faith, can see the depth reality of the flesh of Christ as that is provided for by His life as the eternal Logos (an/ -enhypostasis). Indeed, I was just recently able to comfort my 21-year-old daughter with this type of thinking as she is struggling with issues surrounding reality and God. God wants us to know Him, He wants us to experience His time, which is grounded in the new time actualized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

 

1 That said, he and I are poles apart when it comes to socio-cultural-politico matters.  

2 Bruce Lindley McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son: Reformed Kenoticism and the Repair of Chalcedon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 22-3. 

God’s Eternal Time For Us: How Constancy is Better than Immutability

Thomas Torrance, Barth’s greatest English-speaking doctoral student, and lifelong friend, from that point onward, gained many insights from Barth. But he had his own way of articulating dogma; he was his own theologian, so to speak. Torrance had great respect for Barth’s magnum opus the Church Dogmatics; he had such great respect that along with Geoffrey Bromiley, he translated it from Barth’s native Swiss-German tongue into the English. Torrance’s favorite volume of the CD was II.1, on a Doctrine of God. It is in this volume that Barth offers an alternative, or reification of the classical doctrine of divine immutability; Barth calls his treatment of this doctrine, Constancy. As the theologian reads one of Torrance’s most mature books (The Christian Doctrine of God), in regard to the stage of TFT’s thought and development as a theologian, the reader will see how he riffs on Barth’s doctrine of divine constancy but in his own unique way. He writes:

This means that we must think of the constancy of God which is his unchanging eternal Life as characterised by time, not of course our kind of time which is the time of finite created being with beginning and end, and past, present and future, but God’s kind of time which is the time of his eternal Life without beginning and end. While he creates time along with all that is changeable, he does so without any temporal movement in himself. The time of our life is defined by its fleeting creaturely nature, but the time of God’s Life is defined by his everlasting uncreated Nature in which he transcends our temporality while nevertheless holding it within the embrace of his divine time. Just as we distinguish sharply between the uncreated reality of God and the created reality of the world, between the uncreated rationality of God and our created rationality, or between the uncreated Light of God and our created light, so we must distinguish between God’s uncreated time and our created time. On the other hand, just as we think of our creaturely being as contingently grounded upon the eternal being of God, so we must think of our creaturely time as contingently grounded upon the eternal time of God. Thus we may think of the time of our world, which God has created out of nothing along with the world he has made, as unceasingly sustained by him in a created correspondence to the uncreated time of his own eternal Life. And so far from being some kind of timeless eternity or eternal now that devalues or negates time, the real time of God’s eternal Life gives reality and value to the created time of our life through coordinating its contingent temporality with its own movement and constancy. What does this have to say to us about the unchangeableness or constancy of God which is identical with his self-moving eternal Life? The fact that God has time for us in the partnership he maintains with us in which our fleeting time for all its dissimilarity reflects his eternal time, reinforces the conviction that the nature of God’s time is not static but essentially dynamic and as such is the constant power upon which our contingent temporality rests.1

I think at this point it would be helpful to see how Barth, who TFT is writing after, develops a doctrine of the constancy of God. The reader will see where Barth and Torrance converge, and also where they depart in their own unique and prescient ways. The reader might come to see the types of questions both Barth and Torrance are attempting to address, respectively, from their own informing theological pressures. But I want my readers to understand just how close Barth and Torrance are on fundamental doctrinal points. I can think of no better example of that than as we come to their respective doctrines of divine constancy. Barth writes:

But it is not true that the immutable as such is God. The real truth is—and it is very different—that God is “immutable,” and this is the living God in His freedom and love, God Himself. He is what He is in eternal actuality. He never is it only potentially (not even in part). He never is it at any point intermittently. But always at every place He is what He is continually and self-consistently. His love cannot cease to be His love nor His freedom His freedom. He alone could assail, alter, abolish or destroy Himself. But it is just at this point that He is the “immutable” God. For at no place or time can He or will He turn against Himself or contradict Himself, not even in virtue of His freedom or for the sake of His love. What He does in virtue of His freedom for the sake of His love will never be the surrender but always at every point the self-affirmation of His freedom and His love, a fresh demonstration of His life. This self-affirmation is never anywhere an act of holy egotism, but always everywhere an act of the righteousness in which He establishes His glory over all things. And as an act of His righteousness His self-affirmation must be understood as necessary, not subject to any doubt or temptation. The answer, therefore, to the question: “What is immutable?” is: “This living God in His self-affirmation is the immutable.” The immutable is the fact that this God is as the One He is, gracious and holy, merciful and righteous, patient and wise. The immutable is the fact that He is the Creator, Reconciler, Redeemer and Lord. This immutability includes rather than excludes life. In a word it is life. It does not, therefore, need to acquire life from the impulse of the created world, or above all from the emotions of our pious feeling. It not only has nothing whatever to do with the pagan idea of the immobile, which is only a euphemistic description of death, but it is its direct opposite. It does not require, then, and sentimentalisings in sham concealment or embellishment of its terrible reality. For it is not this fearful reality. It is the reality of life and not of death. God’s constancy—which is a better word than the suspiciously negative word “immutability”—is the constancy of His knowing, willing and acting and therefore of His person. It is the continuity, undivertability and indefatigableness in which God both is Himself and also performs His work, maintaining it as such and continually making it His work. It is the self-assurance in which God moves in Himself and in all His works and in which he is rich in Himself and in all His works without either losing Himself or (for fear of this loss) having to petrify in Himself and renounce His movement and His riches. The constancy of God is not then the limit and boundary, the death of His life. For this very reason the right understanding of God’s constancy must not be limited to His presence with creation, as if God in Himself were after all naked “immutability” and therefore in the last analysis death. On the contrary, it is in and by virtue of His constancy that God is alive in Himself and in all His works. The fact that He possesses selfhood and continuity itself makes Him the living One that He is, and is the basis and meaning of His power and might, the inner divine secret of the movement and wealth itself in which He is glorious on His throne and in all the heights and depths of His creation.2

Both Barth and Torrance, respectively, are intent on demonstrating to the Church, that God is not immobile, but that He has an eternal movement, or an eternal time in Himself. Barth, as we have just read goes so far to say that classical sacra doctrina on divine immutability implies a ‘death’ in God; I agree. What we know of God, as both theologians are committed to, is only the Deus revelatus; the God who is revealed. If this is how the Christian first encounters God, as a God who has moved toward us in Jesus Christ, then to think God in static unmoved mover terms indeed would be to think God in terms of a type of death. We only know God as activity, as eternal and gracious movement; we only know God as His prosopon shines on us like the rays of the Sun shine upon the earth. This is the constancy, or stability of God’s life for the Christian knower; it is indeed an ‘unchangeableness,’ but one that is defined by the perichoretic interpenetrative koinonial Life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in processive intimacy. God’s life is an eternal activity of sabbath rest and shalom. Not immobile, but mobile to the point that He graciously stoops to us, gifts us with an echo-life, one in correspondence with His type of Life, in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

It is within this creaturely structuring, within His gracious movement and humanity for us (Deus incarnandus), that we can come to share in the inner reality of that movement as that is funded by the eternal fount of His forever Life of love for the other. This is what characterizes the changelessness, and thus constancy of God’s Life; it is the triunity of time funded by the ineffability of His eternal threeness (de Deo trino) in oneness (de Deo uno). As such, as we are graciously included in that Life by participatio Christi we experience His eternal time as that has been given its total correspondence in the time of His life for us in the temporality of Life, in the skin and bone of Jesus Christ. As the Christian moves from this temporal life into the consummate eternal Life of God there is a seamlessness to it precisely because we aren’t experiencing something different, relative to the two aspects of time, but simply a transition from one sphere, one seen by the faith of Christ, to another sphere, one seen by the sight of Christ for us; both finding their visio Dei in the Light of God’s free life to be for and with us. There is great hope and expectation here; of the sort that the angels long to understand. And so, they observe us in order to gain some semblance of this strange grace of God for whom they serve at His pleasure; even when they don’t fully grasp just how great this God is.

 

1 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 241.  

2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 §31: Study Edition Vol 9 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 58-9. 

 

The Cosmic Ontological Frame of Salvation: God’s Providence Goes Deeper than Creation out of Nothing

So much of the soteriological discussion these days is focused on individual salvation; that is as that takes shape in the combine between the elect and reprobate within substance causal theories of God and His relation to the world through the decretrum absolutum. While ‘individual salvation’ is a central, if not centraldogma of the soteriological reality, its reach is rather more extensive and cosmic than purely focused on various individual people—and their angst of whether or not they are one of the elect (by whatever means that is actualized). The Apostle Paul understands the cosmic aspect of salvation in the following way:

18 For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the coming glory that will be revealed to us. 19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly but because of God who subjected it—in hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 23 Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance. -Romans 8.18-25

This throws much of the soteriological discussion into relief precisely at the point that it isn’t obsessively focused on me, but instead it focuses on the ‘revealing of the sons of God.’ As is clear from the Genesis narrative God’s economy elevates humanity to a level distinct from general creation in the sense that humanity is the height of His created order; in the sense that humanity is supposed to steward and cultivate the created order with the aim of magnifying its Creator in Jesus Christ. If we allow the creation-pressure to frame a soteriological discussion we end up with a different focus in our own spirituality, among other things. Salvation’s frame becomes an ontological rather than purely forensic focus precisely because we are now focused on the One who created, rather than the ones created. In this frame we can come to see the depth dimension of sin’s rupturing power vis-a-vis its relationship to God’s relation to the world. We can come to realize that what is required for genuine salvation to obtain goes deeper than the creatio ex nihilo; it goes as deep as the mystery of the incarnation, of the Creator become human so that humanity might become one with the Creator through the grace of adoption.

TF Torrance, as he is reflecting on God’s sovereignty with particular reference to Divine providence, writes the following. You will see that he is very much so in line with the Pauline motif, and the notes we have been previously discussing:

First, human existence and history are not separable from the material universe, for man precisely as man is body of his soul as well as soul of his body and it is in the wholeness of that soul-body, body-soul relation that he has been created for fellowship with God. This means that the human being is not exempt from the material forces imminent in the spatio-temporal universe, or therefore exempt from the control of its physical laws impressed upon it by the Creator. Somehow it is not just man who has fallen but the whole created order along with him, so that we may not isolate our understanding of human evil from natural evil, or moral evil from material evil, the pain and suffering of human being from the suffering and misery, the pain and travail of the whole creation. There is what may be called a principle of evil in nature, but of course a perverted principle. It is not surprising, therefore, as the Holy Scriptures tell us, that real redemption from the power of human sin and guilt involves a radical change in the material world and calls for the complete redemption of the created order. That is why both the Old and the New Testaments speak prophetically of a new heaven and a new earth. Our understanding of what this means is governed by the physical or bodily nature of the death and resurrection of Christ, an event with space-time coordinates. Redemption is somatic as well as spiritual, for moral and physical evil infecting the creation may not finally be separated from one another. This cannot but apply to the providential activity of God which involves material as well as spiritual power and therefore an on-going interaction of God ad Creator and Redeemer with the physical universe. The power by which he redeems the world and exercises his providential care over its history is the very same power as that by which he created the world in matter and form out of nothing. Just as his creative power brought the world into physical existence and endowed it with a rational order, so it is in virtue of the same creative power that his redemptive and providential activity operate with the space-time structures of the ongoing world. But just as we cannot comprehend how God created the world out of nothing, or how he brought Jesus Christ forth from the grave, so we are unable to grasp how his redemptive and providential activity makes all things, material as well as spiritual, to serve his eternal purpose of love.1

Rather than thinking God’s relation to the world, and thus thinking the world’s relation to God through a dualistic frame, as Torrance underscores, it is better to think the God-world relation through the analogy of the incarnation. There is a mystery, indeed, to all of this, but God has so made himself vulnerable for us in Christ, that this mystery has concrete extension for us flatlanders to abide with. In other words, while all of the created reality is vouched in the mystery of God’s aseity, at the same time, He has freely elected that we might not remain orphans in a blind universe, but instead participants in the seen reality of God’s life for the world.

One other thing of note: the created order is such that God has mysteriously baked His very life into it, as He is for it, while at the same time remaining distinct from it as its Creator. This might help explain why God did not simply scrap this world, and start over. He had already personally invested Himself in and for this world in Christ, just as the very telos of the world is for the magnification of the Son, Jesus Christ. If this is creation’s frame, that is its recreation in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then God’s investment goes simply beyond some sort of brute power an actus purus (pure being) god might be known for. The Christian God, who is Father of the Son by the Spirit’s bond of lovely fellowship, cannot abandon His first creation, simply because He had always already planned to elevate this creation to the Right Hand of His fellowship in the Son in the second recreation of the second Adam; the greater Adam.

 

1 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 226.

The Aseity of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Revealed in the Littleness of God’s Becoming

It is important for the Christian to get lost in the aseity of God; in the Self-existence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. His eternal life is truly the mysterium Trinitatis (mystery of the Trinity). He alone dwells in unapproachable light; He alone is immortal, the only wise God. His majesty consumes all of reality seen and unseen. No person can see Him unmediated and live; thus Jesus. The ineffable ultimacy of God in Christ is ultimately inexplicable, and thus the source of ultimate worship and adoration. It is this life that God has freely chosen to share with us in the most intimate of ways; He has made us co-heirs, participants with Himself, through the mediatorial vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. This is what TF Torrance explicates for us: 

The incarnation. This is the new act of the eternal God whereby God himself becomes man without ceasing to be God, the Creator becomes creature without ceasing to be Creator, the transcendent becomes contingent without ceasing to be transcendent, the eternal becomes time without ceasing to be eternal. This is an even more astounding act than that of the creation of the universe out of nothing, for in the incarnation the almighty living God becomes little without ceasing to be the mighty omnipotent eternal God. The self-humiliation of God in Jesus Christ, his kenosis or tapeinosis, does not mean the self-limitation of God or the curtailment of his power, but the staggering exercise of his power within the limitations of our contingent existence in space and time. Thus in it the omnipotent sovereign Lord God is revealed to have the inconceivable power of becoming little and contingent, while remaining what he eternally and almightily is. The sovereignty of God is here revealed to be omnipotence clothed in littleness, and it is as such that God exerts and exhibits his indescribable, inconceivable power in his revealing and saving acts for us in space and time.1 

God’s life is an impenetrable mystery; the fact that He has always been, and always will be supersedes any possibility for comprehension. His eternal life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as the One God (de Deo uno) is beyond the vanishing point of our vision. Even hidden as we are in the humanity of Jesus Christ, the very mystery of God’s life and eternality exceeds the very breaking point of circumscription.  

When I am afraid; when fears assail me from without and within; I turn to God’s aseity as He has Self-revealed that reality in the Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit’s ‘hovering’ work. This is important: we don’t think God’s aseity as an abstract black abyss; we think it only as God has chosen for us to think it: as the triune koinonia of the threeness of God (de Deo trino). This is where I repose when I tremble in the darkness of this world; I flee to the Light of God’s never-ending / never-beginning life. He welcomes me as my Father, as my life now is garbed in the adoptive grace He has bestowed upon me, upon us, through the nature of Christ’s vicarious humanity pro nobis. The aseity of God’s life has a face, and for us that face is Jesus Christ. We will always only know God as Father of the Son / Son of the Father by the bond of love provided for by the Holy Spirit. 

 

1 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 214-15.   

The Big Words of Theology: Pushing into the Depth Dimension of the God Beyond the Words

I often get accused, or maybe that’s too strong, I often am told by some of my contacts on social media that their eyes glaze over when coming to a post or tweet of mine. They are referring to the theological jargon I often use when giving self-expression to some thought I have about God, or anything related. I like to say that either 1) I’m speaking freely, or 2) that the jargon I’m using has a theological context within which it makes sense; and that it is used for precision purposes among those who study such things. But the ultimate point remains: technical theological language is useful insofar that it is symbolizing a deeper (than the word) theological reality that no other word[s] heretofore have been found suitable. I like to encourage people to push on, to elevate, and get past the “prestige jargon,” and attempt to stretch and think into the depth dimension that the words are inviting them/us into. This is what TF Torrance is after when he writes the following:

Throughout the last two chapters our thought has centered on the Triunity of God as three Persons, one Being, and towards the end of the last chapter attention was directed particularly to the concept of perichoresis for our understanding of the coactivity of the Holy Trinity. It was pointed out that it is very easy when using technical terms to think concepts rather than the realities denoted by them. Technical terms are a kind of theological shorthand which helps us to give careful expression to basic truths and their conceptual interconnections, as we noted earlier, in the passage of theological clarification from one level of understanding to another and back again. However, in the last resort they are no more than empty abstract propositions apart from their real content in the specific self-communication of God to us in his revealing and saving acts in history in which he has made himself known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was such an essentially dynamic approach to the coactivity of the three divine Persons that we found to be entailed in the theological shorthand of perichoresis.1

TF’s reference to ‘perichoresis’ is fitting. How many people on the street, or in the pew, would have ever heard of perichoresis? And of course, this is to the point. People, often, are much too squeamish when it comes to thinking big. But personally, this baffles me. The God we serve, who is our Lord, spoke, and the world leapt into existence. The God we worship is the Ultimate, is the ineffable God whose ways are not our ways; but He has stooped to our ways by assuming our humanity that we might begin to peer into the Holy of Holies of His Triune Life.

So, let’s get past the eyes glazing over stage, when it comes to big theological words, and imagine that in Christ we have now been given the capacity to be more enamored, more enthralled by the majesty of our ineffable God in such a way that the words used, in an attempt to provide some intelligible and articulate way to think God, aren’t greater than the gift God has given us to see Him with through the eyes of faith (the faith of Christ). As TFT says elsewhere with reference to Holy Scripture (my paraphrase): ‘The words of Scripture are the signs (signum) that point beyond themselves to their reality (res) in God in Jesus Christ.’ This is why Jesus says to Thomas, ‘when you see me you see the Father.’ Jesus is the ultimate signum whoin we see the reality of the Triune God in the Face of God’s Son, enfleshed. The veil, serves as the means of revelation wherein the Deus absconditus (hidden God) becomes the Deus revelatus (revealed God); never predicated by the human condition, but predicating it in a constant frame, and event[uating] of the anointing work of the Holy Spirit (so An / -enhypostasis).

My last paragraph here is an attempt to illustrate further usage of big words in the service of their greater reality found in God in Jesus Christ.

 

1 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark), 203.