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

I have been thinking lately about how easily we, as Christians, are seduced into the ways of the ‘world’; even when we are vigilantly attempting to live sanctified lives unto God. It is seemingly impossible to not be enculturated, at some level, to the point that our guard is taken down and the world system then seeps into the pores of our lives such that we become blind to the stark reality of God’s otherness and holiness; the holiness that He requires us to live into: ‘Be Holy as I am Holy.’ So what’s our hope? Can we have a daily knowledge of God which keeps us from being sucked into the ‘ways of the world,’ such that we have the capacity to not just resist, but discern the various snares set for us by the enemy of our souls?

John Calvin in the very opening of his Institute of the Christian Religion famously offers his thoughts on knowledge of God and knowledge of self. I think his words are a helpful way to think about our position before God, and how it is that we come to have a genuine knowledge of ourselves; just as we come to have a genuine knowledge of God through union with Christ. I want to suggest that it is as we inhabit this frame, on a daily basis, that we will come to have the proper perspective for doing ‘battle’ in a world system that seeks, at every turn, to take us captive to do its will rather than God’s. Calvin writes (in the 1541, French version of his Institute):

For this pride is rooted in all of us, that it always seems to us that we are just and truthful, wise and holy, unless we are convicted by clear evidence of our unrighteousness, lies, madness, and uncleanness. For we are not convinced if we look only at ourselves and not equally at the Lord, who is the unique rule and standard to which this judgment must be conformed. For since we are all naturally inclined to hypocrisy, an empty appearance of righteousness quite satisfies us instead of the truth; and since there is nothing at all around us which is not greatly contaminated, what is a little less dirty is received by us as very pure, so long as we are happy with the limits of our humanity which is completely polluted. Just as the eye which looks at nothing but black-colored things judges something that is a poor white color, or even half-gray, to be the whitest thing in the world. It is also possible to understand better how much we are deceived in our measure of the powers of the soul, by an analogy from physical sight. For if in broad daylight we look down at the earth, or if we look at the things around us, we think that our vision is very good and clear. But when we lift our eyes directly to the sun, the power which was evident on the earth is confounded and blinded by such a great light, so that we are obliged to admit that the good vision with which we look at earthly things is very weak when we look at the sun. The same thing happens when we measure our spiritual abilities. For as long as we do not consider more than earthly matters we are very pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, and flatter and praise ourselves, and thus come close to considering ourselves half divine. But if we once direct our thought to the Lord and recognize the perfection of His righteousness, wisdom, and power (the rule and standard by which we must measure), what pleased us before under the guise of righteousness will appear dirtied with very great wickedness; what deceived us so wondrously under the guise of wisdom will appear to be extreme madness; what had the appearance of power will be shown to be miserable weakness: so it is when what seemed most perfect in us is compared with God’s purity.[1]

Calvin’s thought here is a prescient word for our current moment in world history. As Christians, in the main, we have firmly planted our feet on the slippery slope of cultural appropriation to the point that genuine encounter with the living God has become fleeting; instead we typically end up encountering self-projections who we have conflated with divinity.

Some may read these words from Calvin, and read: Legalism or nomism. But if that’s the conclusion then Calvin’s point is only proven, not repudiated. Christians are so afraid of being legalists, that they’ve lost sight of the demand of God to be holy as He is Holy. Christians, unfortunately, have wrongly read legalism and God’s holiness and purity together; but this couldn’t be further from the reality. Legalism is a man-made standard, the very standard Calvin is attempting to marginalize and undercut, that elevates human-centered wisdom and righteousness to divine status, and then, if at all, attempts to live up to this artificial standard to achieve favor before God and men. But this is all wrong, as Calvin so insightfully identifies. God’s holiness is sui generis, it is of another sort; another world even. God’s holiness is set apart by His eternal Life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in interpenetrative union. This is the knowledge that sets us free to see ourselves as we are; this is the knowledge that undoes our artificial systems of right and wrong. It is a knowledge of God that sets us free to see the world as it is, as God sees it for us in Christ; a world that, in God’s economy has come to have a cruciform shape, such that to think God rightly first requires a daily reckoning of ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in and from Christ.

It is possible to maneuver the terrain of the current world system as a Christian, and not be fully sublimated by the seductive siren calls of its minions of “light.” But it requires the sort of knowledge Calvin alerts us to. It requires a daily battle that we ourselves have no strength to fight; so it requires that we actively recognize our passive posture before God, with the hope that He, in His mercy, will supply us with the grace sufficient for us to see as He sees. It seems that, by-and-large, the church, even the so called evangelical churches, is failing at this in radical ways. If we are going to be ‘saved’ we must have to do with the real and living God, not with a god who is a manifest destiny of our own making. This is the challenge that Calvin leaves us with: Are we going to battle to seek God while He may be found; are we going to wake up each morning, and reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ? It is only in this Spirit empowered mode of living coram Deo that the Christian will have the resource to be an ‘overcomer’ rather than someone overcome by this world system.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 24.

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Origen Invented the Language of the ‘Fall’: And Other Miscellanies

The Fall. Not a biblical word, per se[1]; did you ever wonder where it came from? I am currently rereading one of my all time favorite books, Julie Canlis’s[2]: Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension. In one of her beginning sections she offers sketches of various early thinkers who helped contribute to a theology of ascent and ascension, respectively. In her coverage of Origen she identifies something interesting—at least to me—in regard to the taxonomy of the verbiage ‘fall.’ I’ve used this language ever since a wee one, being weaned in the church as I was. I have now been studying theology formally and informally for decades, and yet in all that time this reality escaped me; even the first time I read through Canlis’s book (it didn’t stand out to me like it is this time). Who would have ever thought that the heretic[3], Origen, was the originator of the language of fall. Indeed, Origen had a certain ideational context for the whence of his thinking on: fall. Here Canlis helps us understand what in fact that context was, and how it gave irruption to the notion of Fall; for Origen, as we will see, it is a very descriptive and ‘verbial’ conception. Canlis writes,

Origen’s cosmology is played out amidst the drama of fallen intellects who, in committing the first sin, “fell” into embodiment (De principiis 2.9). (Origen was the first to coin the word “fall” for original sin, because he regarded it as a literal fall from the higher spirit world to our lower world of materiality.) Having fallen, these intellects follow a threefold Platonic-style pedagogy to return to God: purification, illumination, and contemplative union. Given this cosmic tutorial, Origen’s soteriology follows suit and styles the person of Christ as the cosmic educator of these misplaced souls. (The Spirit is, not surprisingly, the Spirit of Wisdom.) In this scheme, the physicality of the Savior can be read as more or less a stage for the soul to pass by as it ascends to less and less mediated knowledge of the eternal Logos — for how could God’s limitation be his ultimate expression? In comparison to his near-contemporary Irenaeus, we see in this Alexandrian (and many after him) a subtle shift in accent away from the salvation of the flesh to the pedagogy of the soul.[4]

As an aside, look up Maximus the Confessor’s On The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ as an antidote to Origen’s exitus/reditus Platonic schema of salvation.

Without getting into the nitty gritty of all the intellectual antecedents present in Origen’s world, even as those are highly interesting and important to the task of understanding his motivation for using the language of Fall, I thought it was interesting to simply note the word’s genetic line. It does make me think more astutely about using the word ‘fall’ going forward. It’s not that the word has inherent meaning, but as with any symbol it gains meaning through its context of usage. It is possible to use the language of fall in reified form without affirming its original usage of meaning as that is provided for in Origen’s thought-universe. Anyway, interesting.

 

[1] At least in its technical theological sense.

[2] By the way, Julie is a contributor to our first Evangelical Calvinism book.

[3] Although in many ways it is anachronistic or after the fact to label Origen a heretic; he is being somewhat recouped, as it were, in regard to his valuable status for the church. Even if his insights weren’t colored as post-Nicenely as we’d all like.

[4] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), Loc. 367, 371. On the latter clause of the Canlis quote we might think of David Bentley Hart as a contemporary proponent of an Origenist outlook on soteriology; see his piece: The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients.

 

“Disbelief in God’s love is the root of all evil”: Engaging With Luther’s Theology of Desire, Doctrine of Sin, and Freewill

Sin, desire, and freewill; each of these can be trigger words that often lead to intense theological debate among various parties. In this post I want to address these loci from a particular angle; the angle will have to do with salvation and theological anthropology in particular. When I was in seminary my mentor/professor, Ron Frost, introduced me to his work on what he calls Affective Theology; I’ve written of it, more than once here at the blog, and years ago wrote a very introductory post detailing what it entails in its entailments. I want to redress this ‘theology’ again, not only referring to Frost, but some insights that I’ve picked up from Paul Hinlicky and his work with Luther, Melanchthon, Leibniz, and Barth’s theology; and how his work dovetails nicely with Frost’s work in the area of Affective Theology.

In brief Frost’s Affective Theology is largely a theological anthropological endeavor that, of course, as with all theological projects, reaches back into a doctrine of God. In the main Frost’s thesis, as he focuses most pointedly on Puritan, Richard Sibbes, is to argue, from within a tripartite faculty psychology (per theological-anthropological concerns), that unlike the Thomist Intellectualist tradition, the most basic and defining component of what makes someone human is not their intellect/rationales (which is the major Western Tradition following Thomas Aquinas et al.), but instead it is their ‘affections’ or more biblically attuned, the ‘heart.’ Frost argues that this anthropology can be identified all the way back to Augustine, and then into Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventura, Gerson, Von Staupitz, Luther, Calvin, Sibbes, Cotton et al. Here is some of Frost’s work that should help the reader get a better feel for what his thesis was about. Here you see him comparing and contrasting Richard Sibbes and William Perkins; the latter representative of the more dominant Western tradition—the tradition being uncritically retrieved today by young (and many older forebears) evangelical Reformed theologians.

Some final observations may be made about the positive and privative views of sin. The two approaches differ fundamentally on the reason for sin; while man is identified as responsible for sin in both views, he tends to be portrayed more as a pliable innocent overcome by the serpent’s deceit in the privative model. It is Adam presented as inadequate, not because he was unable to fulfill the law, but, because, in his mutability as a creature, he was vulnerable to moral change. This the serpent exploited while God was willfully away. In scholastic terms, the formal cause of sin was twofold, given the double causality associated with God’s sovereignty. God, as the primary agent for all things, determined the outcome by his withdrawal. In this he was arbitrary but just. The second agent, Adam, failed to apply the grace he had available and thus was culpable for his own fall, albeit as something of a victim. In both considerations the issue of grace is pivotal in its absence. For the privative model, as seen in both Thomistic and Reformed theology, this leads to a greater emphasis on the acquisition and application of grace in hypostatized or commodity-like terms, and a tendency toward Aristotelian moralism — the establishing of one’s righteousness through righteous actions based on grace. To the degree that grace becomes an impersonal quality, the greater the impression one has that something worthy of appreciation, if not merit, is being accomplished.

The doctrine of positive sin, on the other hand, rejects any tendency to see man as a victim; Adam is always the culprit in that he willfully replaced the Creator with the creature as the object of absolute devotion. It also recognizes human mutability as a fact which allows the fall, but rejects it as a meaningful explanation. The fall, in positive sin, remains an impenetrable mystery; Adam is not portrayed as deceived and God is not portrayed as withholding grace. In the positive model sin is always a competition: Adam seeks to usurp God’s role while God confounds Adam’s autonomy.

Thus, the most important difference between the two models is found in the way God is portrayed. In the privative view, as Aquinas and Perkins have it, he remains a supplier of grace — withholding what is needed for salvation except to the elect. He even remains parsimonious to the elect but, as their efforts prevail, is increasingly generous. In the positive view, on the other hand, he is an enemy until conversion which comes by the Spirit’s direct intervention. He invites the elect to see God as he really is: righteous, strong, and loving. Conversion, in fact, is a litmus for the two views: the privative model generally adopts a catechetical process which culminates in an affirmation of faith. The positive model, while recognizing that the Spirit uses prevenient stirrings, expects a more distinct Paul-light conversion which displays the moment in which selfish autonomy melts before God’s self disclosure. For the one, nature remains very much in view; for the other, God, once unveiled by grace, dominates the scene.

The importance of the affections for Sibbes and the nomists differed in profound ways. For Sibbes the affections were both the avenue by which sin entered the world and the avenue by which God, through the Spirit, restores the fallen soul. Slavery of the will was seen to be an enslavement by one’s own desires, something broken only by transforming vision of God as more desirable than anything human autonomy offers. Perkins and the nomists, on the other hand, saw the affections as a subordinate element of the will; they also provided a suitable theology for the prominent will by adopting the Thomist privation-enablement model of sin and grace.

Perkins and the nomists thus established human responsibility as the center-theme of salvation; the moral law became the locus of the soul in the process of sanctification. The belief that the covenant of grace is essentially a legal contract shaped all spirituality into a restorative stance: life is seen as an effort to regain and sustain Adam’s original obedience through the Spirit-enabled will. This generated a Christology which emphasized the juridical work of Christ to the point that, for pastoral ministry, the purpose of restored communion was easily reduced into the preaching of moralist endeavor.

Against this view, Sibbes, in line with Augustine, emphasized the place of Christ as much more than the source of justification, but primarily as one to be loved. The promise of the indwelling Spirit, whose ministry in Christ’s life is now allocated to the Christian, gives promise of a greater hope than the nomists offered: full and eternal intimacy of the Godhead through a true, although mystical, union with Christ. The feet of the soul are the affections and the affections are meant for communion with God.[1]

Hopefully you can get a better grasp on what Frost’s theory on Affective Theology entails. I think he identifies a pivotal reality that is lost, in serious ways, when it comes to the Reformed theology being retrieved today. Frost’s is actually a retrieval of a genuinely formed Reformational (versus post-Reformational) theology, one that hearkens from Luther himself; one that has been lost to the Christian Aristotelian tradition that Richard Muller et al. is wont to emphasize as THE dye that ostensibly serves pervasive in the whole of Reformed theology in thematic ways. What Frost demonstrates is that this ‘affective theology’ was as pervasive in and among the development of post-reformation theology as was the Christian Aristotelian form that people focus on today.

Okay, Hinlicky, someone who works even more so as a constructive theologian (versus Frost who is more of a historical theologian) whose period is from the modern angle, interestingly (to me), identifies these same themes in Luther’s et al. theology as Frost gleaned from Puritan theology; the point of convergence for both of them is indeed, Martin Luther and Augustine. Hinlicky brings the discussion that I want to have, on the role of desires, loves, sin, and freewill into relief as he writes (at serious length):

What Augustine and his tradition chiefly deny, however, is that any conceivable creature, pre- or postlapsarian, has freedom of desire. This is the “popular” sense of human free-will (which Luther identified and rejected as presuming “a power of freely turning in any direction, yielding to none and subject to none”). Creaturely desire instead spontaneously and as such involuntarily seeks the good and averts from evil. Desire that sought its evil would be pathological. The creature cannot help but seek its good and assent to it, or conversely, avert from its evil. The creature is motivated by its loves. It is analytic to the creaturely state that, as Aristotle famously declared at the outset of the Nichomachean Ethics, all by nature seek the good. Being creatures, they do not, as Martin Luther put it commenting on the first article of the creed, have life in themselves such that they can ever be free from desire: “Thus we learn from this article that none of us has life — or anything else that has been mentioned or could be mentioned — from ourselves, nor can we by ourselves preserve any of them, however small and unimportant.” As long as they live, in order to live, creatures must desire what appears good to them and avert the evil; the will spontaneously desires its perceived good. If it did not, it would be sick to death. The will is bound to desire and is bound to desire. This is what is in mind, then, when this tradition speaks of the bound or enslaved will, voluntas, not arbitrium (though Luther muddles the two terms). As Jan Lindhardt has shown: “St Augustine (d. 431) determined in extension of the Platonic tradition, that a man was identical with his love. He defined love itself as concupiscentia (desire).” This yielded a view of “man more as a unity than as a creature subdivided into various departments. . . . It was not the distinction between body/soul/reason, which occupied his attention, but the direction adopted by the soul or will, or drive,” and this “was interpreted during the Renaissance as representing a completely different view of man,” “not conceived of as an active subject, but as a receptive object” taking on the form of what is loved. Luther agreed with this understanding of Augustine’s anthropology, that “a man is his love.” This is the basis for his eccentric anthropology. Any will other than God’s is a will bound to desire the good that appears to it from without; this desire becomes one’s own will (not another’s) by virtue of free choices from among the available goods that one actually, historically, biographically pursues, since a human being is free to act, or to critically refrain from action, in the face of such choices. In just this way she forms the story of her life, as patient of her own passions and agent of her own actions.[2]

To make what Hinlicky just wrote crescendo he writes further:

In running roughshod over the important differentiation between freedom of choice and freedom of desire, Luther wanted to indicate how making choices contrary to God’s will in disobedience reflects the deeper fault of a root usurpation of God’s place as Creator. The root of all evil choices is disbelief in God’s love, seeking instead by one’s own choices and actions creatively to bestow value on something by one’s own sovereign good-pleasure. Human works are never what they appear to be on the surface; they are always acts of faith or disbelief. Choices are never merely temporal decisions, but decide whether or not in faith to rest in God’s good pleasure that bestows value on oneself, precisely as patient of one’s own sufferings, maker of one’s own choices, and agent of one’s own actions. Disbelief in God’s love is the root of all evil. Thus the ontologically impossible possibility of human freedom of desire, that desire sovereignly creates the object of its desire by the triumphant assertion of its will. This usurpation no theology that upholds the ontological difference between Creator and creature can admit. Even as arrogant pride presumes this freedom, there comes a Day of the Lord to topple it from its throne. One can want to be Hitler or Stalin, one can really make this choice, one can provisionally and disastrously for self, for others, and for the cosmos act on it. But finally one cannot succeed in it. “God’s purpose in this [causing failure of the human choice to be one’s own god] is that the heavenly City, during its exile on earth, by contrasting itself with the vessels of wrath, should learn not to expect too much from the freedom of the power of choice, but should trust in the ‘hope to call upon the name of the Lord God.’” We may recall here as well Barth’s well-intended but problematic teaching that a real alternative between God and the abyss of nihilism is ontologically impossible. Unlike Barth, however, for Luther or Augustine the nihilism of human superbia is impossible because hell puts the end to evil that will not otherwise die. The wrath of the God of love forces away from His company the usurper who wants to be God and not let God be God. That finally (not until then! Rev. 20:10) is how the real evil in the world is refuted. Actual evil is the presumption of divine “power of freely turning in any direction, yielding to none and subject to none,” that is met and matched, fire met by fire, not by persuasion but with force. If there are possibilities of mercy beyond this ultimate threat, they cannot in any event be conceived apart from it, only somehow through it and beyond it. In the interim, for Augustine, the relation of human freedom to divine sovereignty is not symmetrical: “when the will turns from the good and does evil, it does so by the freedom of its own choice [i.e., a logical alternative is available], but when it turns from evil and does good, it does so only with the help of God.”[3]

There is too much to attempt to address, but let me try and emphasize the themes we started out with. We see in Hinlicky’s treatment the same sorts of themes present in Frost’s analyses of different figures. But as I highlighted earlier the common thread between Frost and Hinlicky is to focus on Luther and Augustine. What I am hoping you, the reader, are picking up is how profound the affections/desires are and were for Luther[an] theology, and how that theme never went away; even if it unfortunately became overshadowed by much of the Aristotelian formed post-reformation theology that developed latterly.

Something else I hope the reader is picking up, without me attempting to draw all the pieces together (between Frost’s and Hinlicky’s analyses) is how the way we view humanity flows from the way we view God. If God is Triune love, a God’s who being is defined by his intra-relation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, if that reality defines our “metaphysics,” if that reality is allowed to evangelize our metaphysics, then the way we develop anthropology, and our doctrines of sin/evil, so on and so forth will be radically re-oriented by this understanding of God. We see this re-orientation in what Frost and Hinlicky are offering us as they engage with Augustine, Luther, and the tradition itself. It is an emphasis that many today would make us think is fringe or non-existent; or that it reflects a revisionist understanding of the history of ecclesial ideas that isn’t totally accurate. To the contrary! There are threads in the tradition that fit much better with the idea that what stands at the center of who humans are has to do with God’s love,[4] and the human love attenuated by that love, rather than seeing people defined by their intellect; the latter coming from an understanding that sees God as the Big Brain in the sky, the Brain that relates through decrees rather than filial love by the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ.

There is more to say, more technical things to get into and unpack. But let’s what I’ve offered from Frost and Hinlicky suffice for now, and maybe we can attempt to distill these things further, and more technically at a later date. We never really did get too far into the issues broached in regard to freewill etc. But hopefully, at the very least, from the long quotes, you can see how we might develop these themes vis-à-vis the greater frame provided for by a theology of desire/love.

P.S. This new theme I just plugged in doesn’t seem to overtly provide a way for commenting (if you want to). If you’d like to comment on this post then simply click on the title of the post, and it will open up the combox for you to write a comment[s].

 

[1] Ron Frost, Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology, [unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, 1996 University of London Kings College], 94-96. Frost’s work has since been published as, Richard Sibbes God’s Spreading Goodness.

[2] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 151-52.

[3] Ibid., 153-54.

[4] Which is what we are also identifying with Evangelical Calvinism, with a particular focus on Thomas F. Torrance’s theology.

Gregory of Nyssa’s Doctrine of Evil as an Explanation for the Chaos of this World [dis]Order

Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of evil, at least as distilled by Paul Hinlicky’s treatment, offers a substantial this-worldly account of evil; beyond that, if offers a way to think of evil in positive rather than simply in privative terms. I think this positive understanding of evil needs to be appreciated much more. It is a reality I was first alerted to by a mentor of mine in his development of this evil as a “positive” reality as he retrieved that in Augustine’s post-Pelagius understanding of evil, and sin more pointedly as concupiscence (‘self-love’). Here in Nyssa’s understanding, Hinlicky helps us to see another aspect of positive evil understood as envy. Envy being driven by the demonic and devilish desire to find existence and being in realities that in fact are deemed as ‘nothingness’ (or privative evil) in God’s Kingdom and economy. Hinlicky writes of Nyssa:

According to Nyssa, it was upon hearing the divine plan of a glorious destiny for the lowly earthling that the ontologically superior angel, Lucifer, resolved to undo God’s work, choosing for himself and the world a destiny refused in God’s primal decision. If this divine destination of the earthling is the “real world,” the inbreaking of chaos in its history under the forms of the powers of sin and death is motivated by the malice of envy, whose parody of the principle of sufficient reason is to exist for the sake of destroying. Such is the uncanny actuality of the demonic. This account has the merit, I think, of locating evil as a positive power, not a mere privation, within the creation, as personified in the figure of the devil; it makes evil intelligible, not absurd, in the sense that it can be named as the envy for existence stemming from the possibilities God primordially refused. Moral evil is to choose for oneself a destiny other than God’s, and in its actualization therefore it spins episodes of sheer, incalculable chaos into the web of life in its series of development. In turn, one who have to think of a certain temporal freedom of the Spirit who blows where He wills — determined by God’s primordial decision to create, redeem, and fulfill the world in Christ and yet free to innovate in response to these essentially unpredictable, intrinsically incalculable incursions of malicious envy.[1]

This represents a powerful way to think about evil, and then how that is personally experienced and lived out in sinful expressions. It coalesces with the world I live in on a daily basis; and I’m sure that is not limited to my experience. Importantly this understanding of evil maps well onto texts like Genesis 3, Matt. 4 etc. Living in and from this ‘evil’ trajectory the world seeks to live in an alternate reality which indeed results in chaos and disorder of the likes that we see being presently lived out in front of us—even from within us—on a daily basis.

The spiritual battle, when we bring this conception to that level, is a struggle to fight against the forces of darkness, ‘the prince of the power of the air’, that constantly and ceaselessly, in seductive malice attempts to lure us into these sorts of base desires that the devil and his putrid minions have given themselves over to tout court. I personally feel the tear of this luring in my life on a daily basis; I’d rather live in and from a world of nothingness and destruction rather than from the life that God has elected for me in Jesus Christ simul justus et peccator. Although, in truth, I can honestly say that this represents the battle; the reality is that I’d rather flee the body of death I currently inhabit, and live once and for all in and from the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ iustiti Christi.

We live in a world where nothingness abounds, because envy abounds; an envy driven by self-love and collapse into the self-possessed self homo in se incurvatus. We desire to be like God in our basest selves; as such we live in a non-world that is funded by nothing but disorder and monstrous chaos. The church, in many respects, continues to reflect an existence that is bounded to this evil world of envy, rather than the pure world that is characterized by a God who became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. If the church cannot recognize, if it cannot discern between the holy and the profane (Lev 10), if it continues to allow the strange fire of a nothingness-world to be its reality, then the church itself (not her esse) stands to be judged more than the world (I Pet 4).

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 110-11.

An [onto]Relational Rather than Metaphysical Doctrine of Sin: An Altar-Call for Metaphysics

One reason I am continuously enamored with Thomas Torrance (and have been for years now) is because he has this knack for being able to mediate, well, between various periods and lexicons of ecclesial ideational development; in other words, he is a constructive theologian and Church Dogmatician par excellence. He is able to bring various voices into conversation, and allow those voices (and periods) to help in-form and cross-pollinate in such a way that what is produced are emphases, that I think!, best proximate the Gospel’s reality and various implications. Take for example his doctrine of sin: because of his commitment to what he calls onto-relationality, that is the being and personalizing constituting reality of God’s inner-Triune-life as not only the ground of who he is in himself, but as that is shared in its over-pouring reality as he freely chooses to create beings in his image (an act of grace) in the imago Christi, Torrance’s theological methodology (prolegomenon) becomes one that is less metaphysical, and instead one that is focused on [onto] relationality. What this means is that Torrance’s terms, even if he converses with the school or ancient theological lexicons, get reified or re-oriented by his focus on the Triune life and the relationality and personalization he sees co-inhering therein.

With the above sketch, in regard to Torrance’s theological method, Trinitarian as it is, person-constituting as it is, this does things further down the line as we get into the development of his other loci (or doctrines). Again, take his doctrine of sin; Torrance thinks sin not in terms of a static metaphysical given, but instead in terms of relational organic dynamism—viz. in terms of how Torrance sees sin in the concrete vis-à-vis its grounding and amplification in relation to grace and God’s life of grace given in Christ. In other words, much like Barth in this instance, Torrance sees sin’s definition only given reality as it is understood from within the reality of grace; and its attempt to thwart God’s goodness and loveliness therein. Geordie Ziegler helps us to appreciate this with greater development as he writes:

Torrance views sin as profoundly and irreducibly personal and relational. As such, his interests lie in sin’s actual existence within the dynamic and personal life-relation that creatures have with God, not in historical questions regarding original sin as an inherent hereditary or fatalistic determinate of our nature. His concerns are the concrete consequences of sin and how sin is manifested in human beings as “an active perversity”: a “positive contradiction,” which “maintains itself in an active opposition.”

Torrance would concur with McFarland, who states that original sin does not refer to an act but to “the ground of all our acts apart from the transforming power of grace.” Original sin represents a profound dis-orientation of our life-relation in communion with God. What separates human creatures from God is that men and women have turned their face away from God; and it is this turning away, this separation, which causes “intrinsic damage” to our nature and irreversibly and inextricably locates us as “fallen.” It is in this context that terms such as “total depravity” and “original sin” have their meaning. A “constitutive change” has taken place which involves the whole person and in which the whole person is involved. By turning away from our Maker, the mirror image which we were created to be is literally “de-faced.” We have a “sinning being” and therefore all repeat our original sin. Isolated acts of sin “are but the outward manifestation of this perversion at the very roots of human being.” Torrance’s relational ontology makes it entirely compatible both with a doctrine of theosis and one of healing from sin.

Descriptively, Torrance frequently uses the metaphorical language of distance to depict the destructive and tragic effects of sin. The fact of the incarnation itself reveals that humanity is “far away from” and “cut off from” God. Yet, it would be a mistake to construe this distance metaphysically. Rather, “the distance between man and God is due to the nearness of God! That distance is a moral one.” For Torrance, to describe human beings as alienated and estranged from both God and themselves is to speak of an incompatibility of immanence. That is, it indicates the profound “antagonism between God’s holy will of love and our sin.” This difference is exposed in bold relief at the coming near of God in Jesus Christ. “Sin presupposes the nearness of God.” It is the distance of differentness, the “clash of wills,” the gap created by opposing desires and the incompatibility of loves between the human creature and the central reality of their existence—namely, their life-unity with the Creator. Thus, when Torrance defines sin as the motion contrary to Grace, he is not setting sin up as Grace’s opposite (for that would be impossible); he is exposing both the personal nature and the utter emptiness of sin. Sin is not sin against an impersonal law, but is a crime against Grace itself—against God’s loving, holy will and being. Consequently, Torrance refuses to allow moralistic categories to drive his description of human fallenness. Sin ‘is not sin simply because it is against love or goodness or even against man but because it is ultimately against God himself.”[1]

Given Torrance’s disposition to think in onto-relational terms what we are presented with is an onto-theo-logical doctrine of sin. As such the emphasis, prior to this development, on an understanding of salvation/justification itself that is grounded not in a forensic framework (as we get in Federal theology’s Covenant of Works/Grace), but as corollary, or as protasis, we get a soteriology that focuses on humanity’s relationship/fellowship with the living God. It’s not that the forensic/juridical is completely elided; it’s just that the theoretical framework for developing a doctrine of justification/sanctification is not generated by a commitment to a conception of God that is rooted in an improperly evangelized metaphysic (what we get in the classical theisms that inadequately pay attention to the Trinitarian personalization that is the co-inhering reality of who God is as the ultimate koinonial/fellowship of persons in perichoretic relation and simple oneness [de Deo uno]).  These relational categories are often lacking in what we find being retrieved by many classical theists today.

Hopefully this helps, at the very least, illustrate how Torrance operates as a constructive theologian par excellence. Torrance ends up giving us a focus on what some might call the existentialism of modern theology’s emphasis, while reifying that emphasis under ontological and relational categories supplied by his engagement with some of the Patristic and Eastern theologians. This is what makes Torrance and Evangelical Calvinism’s appropriation of Torrance’s themes rather unique; and I think highly needed and fruitful for the 21st century church who is seeking out ways to be most faithful to the Evangel’s reality while at the same time seeking to do so in the most catholic and orthodox of ways. I offer Torrance’s doctrine of sin, through Ziegler’s development, up to you as a case study in point.

[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 169-71.

Do Humans Have Freewill?: What it Means to Be Free in Christ the King’s Economy Before God

31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. –John 8:31-36

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sinBut if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. –Romans 8:5-8

Discussions surrounding freewill in human agency abound; whether that be between Calvinism and Arminianism, or in the secular world and philosophy in regard to ethics and moral culpability. But is this really how so called “freewill” operates in a genuinely Christian Dogmatic frame? Augustine, even Luther believed that humans have freewill, but that because of the greater loves supervening in the fallen heart’s life, humans, apart from the Spirit of the LORD, will always choose those things that serve themselves; serves their greater appetites and loves that start and end in an incurved self (homo in se incurvatus).

But really, is this what human “freedom” entails? One would think that what and who a human is, purposively, would determine and shape what in fact so called freedom entails. In other words, if human beings’ ultimate teleology or purpose was always already to be in a conciliatory relationship with the Triune God wouldn’t what it means to be free mean to be free for God? I contend that this is indeed what it means to be humanly free; i.e. free for God. I believe that this is what Jesus and the Apostle Paul were referring to when they thought of “freedom”; to be free from our incurved and broken selves (which is the dehumanizing factor), and to be open and genuinely free for the living God—to be able to live in his type of freedom (the only actual ontology of freedom available) as we participate in and from his life through the mediated eternal life in Jesus Christ.

John Webster gets at these things as he discussing what human freedom entails within the rubric of Divine Providence. He writes:

God’s governance secures the creature’s freedom. If this fails to commend itself, it is because it contravenes a destructive convention according to which true freedom is indeterminacy and absolute spontaneity or it is nothing at all. To say that is to deny creatureliness. Freedom is existence in accordance with created nature and towards created ends, not self-authorship or aseity. This means that freedom is reception, but not passivity – that is permission and summons, but not spoken by me, but to me by God. ‘God is the abiding cause of man’s being a cause able to determine the character of his existence.’ The free person fulfils her self by perfecting a given nature. That perfecting is the work of providence which does not constrain but fulfils the creature’s self-determination, because, in Aquinas’s terms, God’s providence moves the creature’s will ‘as he influences it interiorly’ (interius eam inclinando). Can a moved will be free? Yes, because ‘to be moved voluntarily is to be moved of one’s own accord, i.e. from a resource within. That inner resource, however, may derive from some other, outward source. In this sense, there is no contradiction between being moved of one’s own accord and being moved by another’. If we are to see that Aquinas’s argument is evangelically well-judged, we need to grasp that divine providential acts are not simple compulsion (the archer sending the arrow) but rather intrinsic to the creature whom God moves, what Aquinas calls ‘natural necessity’, in which the creature is activated and not diminished. And to see this we also need to see that – as that astute reader of Aquinas, Turretin, puts it at the beginning of the modern period, ‘The fount of error is the measuring of the nature of liberty from equilibrium and making indifference essential to it. Liberty must be defined by willingness and spontaneity.’

This points us to how, in the light of the gospel, providence dignifies creatures. As with creaturely freedom, so with creaturely dignity: it does not consist only in being agens seipsum, one’s own director. To be moved by divine government is not to be beaten, but to be moved to act.[1]

Webster’s insights, particularly as he gleans those from Aquinas, can easily get us into discussions revolving around what has been called compatibilism, libertarian free agency, Molinism, synchronic contingency etc. But let’s not get lost in that patch.

The basic point I am wanting to reiterate is that in the Kingdom of God in Christ—in other words, in “really real reality”—what it means to be ‘free’ for human beings is to be free for the Triune God. Webster, via Aquinas, notes the role that teleology and purposiveness as regnant realities have for what being human coram Deo means vis-à-vis a conception of freedom. To be free, in an ultimate and even basic sense, for the creature in God’s economy (which is the only real economy around) is to be free for God. Living in and from his freedom, the type that grounded and grounds his choice to be for us and not against us, the type that grounded and grounds his choice to create and recreate in the resurrection is the only real freedom there is. Thus, for the human, what it means to actually be free and to have free-choice, is what it looks like for God as that is derived through our participation in his life in and through Christ.

And the last point I just iterated needs to be pressed; Webster doesn’t press it in the quote I provide from him, and he has certain antinomy towards it more broadly when it comes to speaking about moral human free agency. That is: we need to ground what it means to be human in the archetypal humanity of Jesus Christ for us. If we don’t we will be prone to think humanity from discoverable (versus revealed) traits and resonances that we think we can discern by reflection upon human experience and circumstance in the profane and mundane world. We need a robust doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ to regulate our theological anthropology if we are going to have a proper understanding of not only what it means to be human coram Deo, but what it subsequently means to be free before God in accord with our given natures as human beings.

 

[1]John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 139.

The Christian’s Battle Against the Forces of ‘Nothingness’: Evil and Sin Both

I wanted to repurpose a long section from Mark Lindsay’s excellent book Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel in order to provide a good introduction into Barth’s doctrine of sin as nothingness (das Nichtige). I think a further and helpful augmentation of this can be found in Eberhard Jüngel’s writings (h/t: Kurt Anders Richardson); particularly with focus on Jüngel’s description of Barth’s doctrine in light of the cross of Christ (Lindsay’s development doesn’t get us into too much discussion on the cross, per se). The section I quote at length comes from Lindsay’s work on Barth and Israel; and in particular Barth and the holocaust.

But I want to introduce my readers to this because of the ongoing reality of evil and darkness we continue to live through in an ongoing basis in the world. What I hope to alert people to is the fact that we need to be vigilant in the battle of counterposing the forces of darkness (cf. Col. 1.13) that are presently at work in the kingdom of this world system. I am starting to get this sense that Christians are so succumbing to the culture that we have lost our ‘fight’ as the church militant. When I say ‘fight’ and ‘culture’ I am not referring to the so called ‘culture wars,’ in fact the culture wars, and being caught up in that mode, is exactly where this real ‘fight’ is being sidelined from the real and pressing evil of the world system. Barth’s doctrine of sin as nothingness helps us to understand the nihilist nature of the forces of evil that would seek to undo all that God has done in his election of humanity and thus salvation for us (if you’ve read Athanasius’ De Incarnatione you will see him relate a concept of nothingness to the incarnation and God’s intention of defeating such a heinous evil). Barth’s doctrine of nothingness helps us to think evil and sin both from Christ rather than in terms of a Manichean dualism wherein an eternal struggle of light and dark are in contest. This is important to grasp precisely to the point that we come to realize the asymmetrical nature of the battle that God has lovingly chosen to assume for himself for us in the incarnation; in other words, as we will see in Barth’s doctrine of nothingness, the nothingness of darkness has no hope in God’s act-ive movement of election in his assumption of ‘flesh.’ Nothingness, ‘outer darkness,’ in Barth’s dogma is real, but ultimately is put into its non-real status as it is the last enemy put under God’s feet in Christ. Nothingness for Barth presents a struggle for the Kingdom of God, but only insofar as this “outsider” attempts to gain reach into the inner life of God’s act as that is realized in the historia salutis in God’s step into the wilderness of a fallen humanity.

Read Lindsay on Barth, and then I will follow with some closing remarks.

Barth begins by contending that, alongside the existence of God and His creation, there exists a “third factor” that can only be comprehended as an alien element at the margins of creation and providence. The malignant character of this alien factor is attested, immediately and without reservation, when Barth depicts it as “an entire sinister system” that exists only in the form of “opposition and resistance”. Although das Nichtige is “unable to overwhelm and destroy [humankind]”—for reasons we shall shortly come to— “it constantly threatens and corrupts it.” As John Hick has noted, Barth perceives evil in its full seriousness as “the object of unqualified fear and loathing” which “takes the forms of sin and pain, suffering and death.”

We have not yet, however, arrived at a definition of what this alien element is. Properly speaking, we cannot talk of Nothingness as something which “is”. In strictly ontological terms, “[o]nly God and His creature really and properly are.” This cannot be taken to imply that Nothingness does not exist. Indeed, Barth is singularly outspoken in his insistence that Nothingness has a terrifyingly real existence. Alan Davies is correct, therefore, to state that neo-orthodox theology, of which Barth was a founding member, “was named after the old orthodoxy…partly because it resurrected the hoary orthodox doctrine of original sin…” So, irrespective of whatever faults Barth’s doctrine may contain, “its author cannot be accused of taking too mild a view…”

Nevertheless, Nothingness cannot be regarded as having an existence that merely parallels that of creation in an antithetical sense. Such an assumption would imply that Nothingness is simply that which is not. Barth, however, rejects this suggestion, because the “nots” of creation are essential to creation’s perfection. “God is God and not the creature, but this does not mean that there is nothingness in God. On the contrary, this ‘not’ belongs to His perfection.” Similarly for the creature, the fact that it is the creature and not God is intrinsic to its creaturely perfection. Within the realm of creation, there exists light and dark, land and water. There is, in other words, a negative side as well as a positive side. There is

not only a Yes but also a No; not only a height but also an abyss; not only clarity but also obscurity…; not only growth but also decay; not only opulence but also indigence; not merely beauty but also ashes; not only beginning but also end…

This shadow-side is, however, as much a part of the perfection of creation as the positive side. To equate it with Nothingness is no less than blasphemy.

In what sense, therefore, can we speak of Nothingness as an existing reality? According to Barth, the ontic context of its existence is the divine activity of creation grounded in election. In CD III/1, §41, Barth posits the view that the work of creation is presupposed by God’s decision of election. Thus, he regards “creation as the external basis of the covenant”, and the “covenant as the internal basis of creation”. Later on in this volume, he explains that “God the Creator did not say No, nor Yes and No, but Yes to what He created…Creation as such is not rejection, but election and acceptance.”22 It is this understanding that informs Barth’s concept of the existential content and being of Nothingness. This does not mean that it is possible to explain the origin of evil in the world, as though it had an independently legitimate existence.23 Rather, it is that which God did not elect to create but, rather, passed over. It is that “from which God separates Himself and in the face of which He…exerts His positive will.”24 Put in another way, it is the object of permittere—God’s permission—rather than of efficere, which is God’s direct production. In electing and, therefore, in subsequently creating what He elected, Nothingness was passed over by God, as that which He did not will and thus did not create. “God elects, and therefore rejects what he does not elect. God wills, and therefore opposes what he does not will. He says Yes, and therefore says No to that to which He has not said Yes.” It is on the basis of this non-willing that Nothingness exists. It exists, that is to say, as “what God did not, and does not and cannot will. It has the essence only of non-essence and only as such can it exist.” Precisely in this way, however, it does exist.

In this regard, we are faced squarely with the paradoxical situation whereby, as Mallow has correctly perceived, the only context in which Nothingness can exist is that of ontological impossibility. God has neither willed nor created it, nor does it have any source of existence independent of God (for as Barth insists, God “is the basis and Lord of nothingness too”). Nevertheless, it exists. Certainly, it exists in its ownsui generis form of malignancy and perversion, and as that of which “God is wholly and utterly not the Creator…” As an objective reality that threatens the creature, however, its existence cannot be gainsaid.

In moving from generalities to specifics, Barth regards the great evil of Nothingness as being, in its most exact formulation, the enemy of divine grace. Once again, this is most readily perceived if we recall theloci of election and creation as the presuppositions for any discussion ofdas Nichtige. Because God’s activity as Creator is founded on His decision to elect, this decisive activity, as His opus proprium, is the work of divine grace. But Nothingness exists as that which is non-willed and, therefore, rejected. Evil “is”, in other words, only in its determination as that which is opposed to grace. As the reality which “God does not will [but] negates and rejects”, it exists only as “the object of His opus alienum.” As such, it is the “being that refuses and resists and therefore lacks His grace.”

Two corollaries follow. First, as that which resists and hence lacks grace, Nothingness is the truest embodiment of evil (with the caveat that, once again, we are confronted with an oxymoron; Nothingness is “true evil” only in the sense that it is the most authentic representation of falsehood).  In spite of the ontic possibility in which Nothingness exists, we cannot argue that evil as such is rendered harmless. On the contrary, in its form of evil and death, Nothingness encounters humanity as “affliction and misery”, in face of which “the creature is already defeated and lost.” According to Barth, there can be no avoiding the fact that the evil of Nothingness is constantly poised at the frontier of creation, threatening it and making it its victim. We must not be guilty, Barth says, of “an easy, comfortable and dogmatic underestimation of its power in relation to us.” “The conquest of evil does not have that “matter-of-courseness” for man [sic] which it has for God.” It therefore becomes clear why Barth so rigorously critiques Leibniz and Schleiermacher who, in Barth’s opinion, are guilty of precisely this underestimation. Leibniz’s definition of metaphysical evil as merely the imperfection of the creature represents, for Barth, a domestication of the adversary; because this imperfection is natural to the creature and thus belongs to its creaturely perfection, evil comes to be regarded simply as “a particular form of good…” Similarly with Schleiermacher, evil is “correlative to good”. It exists in radical but not autonomous opposition to grace, in such a way that it is given “a legitimate standing” as the “counterpart and concomitant of grace.” Nothingness is, therefore, to be understood positively, and as that without which grace could not exist. To the extent that Schleiermacher understands it this way, as an indispensable counterpart to grace, it is not evil with which he is concerned. In the face of these two views, the genuinely and dangerously evil character of Barth’s das Nichtige stands out in sharp relief.

The second corollary is that, as the enemy of divine grace, Nothingness is primarily an assault upon God, with humanity as only the secondary target. Again, this is in contrast to Schleiermacher’s doctrine, according to which the sovereignty of God elevates Him above all violations. For Barth, however, the conflict with Nothingness is primarily and properly God’s own affair. Nothingness is the assault of the nonwilled reality against the elected creation. As such, it represents an attack not only upon God’s created covenantal partner but also and primarily upon God’s decision to elect and, therefore, on God Himself. In CD II/2, Barth makes clear that, in pre-temporal eternity, God is an electing God. “[I]n the act of love which determines His whole being God elects.” Moreover, the act of election “is not one moment with others in the prophetic and apostolic testimony”, but, enclosed “within the testimony of God to Himself, it is the moment which is the substance and basis of all other moments in that testimony.” This being the case, the violation by Nothingness of the act and decision of election is as such a violation of God. This means that God, in faithfulness to His covenant, must take up the battle against Nothingness. He must be “the Adversary of the adversary”, otherwise He would not be true, either to His covenant partner or to Himself. As Barth puts it,

We have not to forget the covenant, mercy and faithfulness of God, nor should we overlook the fact that God did not will to be God for His own sake alone, but that as the Creator He also became the covenant Partner of His creature, entering into a relationship with it in which He wills to be directly and [primarily] involved in all that concerns it…[This] means that whatever concerns and affects the creature concerns and affects Himself, not indirectly but directly, not subsequently and incidentally but primarily and supremely. Why is this so? Because, having created the creature, He has pledged His faithfulness to it. The threat of nothingness to the creature’s salvation is primarily and supremely an assault upon His own majesty.

Barth is not thereby implying that God Himself is essentially threatened and corrupted by Nothingness, as humanity is. The counterpart of humanity’s vulnerability to the power of das Nichtige, which we have already seen, is that we must not overestimate its power in relation to God. Indeed, if its power should be rated “as high as possible in relation to ourselves”, it must be rated “as low as possible in relation to God.” Nevertheless, God is not unmoved by radical evil. On behalf of His creation – which, in its encounter with Nothingness can only show itself to be the impotent victim of suffering – God opposes, confronts and victoriously crushes His graceless adversary. As may be expected from such a consistently Christocentric theologian, the locus of this triumph over evil is the incarnation or, more specifically, the cross and resurrection of Christ.

At this place, we must qualify our earlier comment that God is not threatened by Nothingness. In the incarnation, God Himself becomes a creature and thus takes upon Himself the creature’s sin, guilt and misery. In “what befalls this man God pronounces His No to the bitter end.” The entire fury of Nothingness – and of God’s wrath directed towards it – falls upon Christ “in all its dreadful fulness…” Precisely, however, because this man is also God, “Nothingness could not master this victim.” It had power over the creature. It could contradict and oppose it and break down its defences. It could make it its slave and instrument and therefore its victim. But it was impotent against the God who humbled Himself, and Himself became a creature, and thus exposed Himself to its power and resisted it.

By confronting and decisively triumphing over Nothingness in Jesus Christ, God has relegated it to the past. In the light of the cross and the empty tomb, “there is no sense in which it can be affirmed that nothingness has any objective existence…” Barth rejects outright the suggestion that radical evil exists in the form of an eternal antithesis. On the contrary, he insists that it has no perpetuity. It is neither created by God, nor maintained in a covenantal relationship with Him. Thus, “we should not get involved in the logical dialectic that if God loves, elects and affirms eternally he must also hate and therefore reject and negate eternally. There is nothing to make God’s activity on the left hand as necessary and perpetual as His activity on the right.” Nothingness has been brought to its end, no longer having even the transient and temporary existence it once had. On this note of “cosmic optimism”, Barth concludes his presentation of his doctrine.[1]

We see how Barth’s doctrine of election is bound up with his doctrine of nothingness; something as a corollary. In days to come I will offer further thickness to this as we develop this through referencing Jüngel’s accounting with particular reference to the cross of Jesus Christ in Barth’s theology. Even so, reading of Barth by purely referring to his doctrine of election (which is the basis of all else in Barth’s theology), as Lindsay does, what is emphasized is the idea that reprobation itself is situated into the doctrine of God’s humiliation in the election of humanity in Christ. That is, reprobation is an aspect of the nothingness that God came to destroy and has destroyed in the resurrection. Thus, in Barth’s theology we are to look out at the world of humanity through the humanity of Jesus Christ; not in terms of a two-class system of the elect and reprobate, but instead from the one class of humanity that is grounded in Christ’s supervening humanity for us that vanquishes the forces of evil and leaves it in the hidebound of nothingness that ultimately, and even apocalyptically, has been destroyed.

More pastorally I am very concerned, as I opened this post up with, the fact that Christians, I think, are not really in the fight. I believe many evangelical Christians (not to mention the mainliners et al) have succumbed to a vanilla conception of a doctrine of evil and sin both, and as such have lost any power to actually fight from the power of God. What I am really saying is that I think many evangelical Christians have lost touch with what and who the Gospel reality is through their sermons of self-help and therapy that they receive Sunday in Sunday out, and as such don’t have the power of God as the resource they need to battle the nothingness that seeks to destroy their souls and the souls of everyone else in the world. When I say that I think evangelicals have lost their way in regard to what and who the Gospel is, part of this is entailed by a faulty understanding of just who in fact God came for. If God came for a segregated part of the world (the elect) then the rest of the world might as well go to hell. This thinking, I contend, comes from a faulty understanding of election by losing its focus on the elect of God who alone is Jesus Christ thus rupturing God’s work from God’s person making God’s work in Christ purely instrumental and subordinate and thus not inimical to his person as the second person of the Trinity.

 

[1] Mark R. Lindsay, Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 48-52. Also see Lindsay’s Pdf of his whole chapter where this long quote is taken from entitled: Nothingness Revisited: Karl Barth’s Radical Evil in the Wake of the Holocaust. In the book version that I’ve been reading Lindsay has the pertinent sections from Barth’s CD bracketed throughout for the reader’s reference. In the essay form he has all of the CD references footnoted; the reader will want to refer to his essay which I have linked here if they want to follow up further in Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

Living in the ‘Feeling’ and Reality of Freedom from Sin that God Desires For Us In Christ: From Gestation to Resurrection

I really struggled with a false sense of guilt and condemnation for particular sins from my past for years upon years. The enemy of my soul kept me living under ‘a yoke of bondage’ that Jesus said I ‘would be free indeed’ from. The Lord did not leave me as an orphan though, by the Spirit he ministered to me through a sort of rigorous exercise of training me to think rightly about reality as declared in the evangel of His life as borne witness to in Holy Scripture. After many years of anxiety and depression, particularly stemming from living under this false yoke of condemnation the Lord used the reality of creation and recreation to bring the freedom that I so desperately desired. I am sure that I am not alone in this walk, and so I thought I would share a little bit of how this ‘training’ from the Lord looks; at least the way it looks for me.

As I just intimated a doctrine of creation and recreation, along with God’s sovereign providential care of all reality, played the required roles for me to finally see that I truly was and am free (for God and others). As already noted this sort of education from God was motivated by a crisis—we might refer to it as a theology of crisis—a crisis that brought the realization home that I did not have the resources in myself to bring the freedom that God alone could bring.[1] So how does this relate to God being Creator; and not just in an intellectual sense, but how does that reality relate to these real life spiritual issues in a existential felt manner?

In order to help explain what I’m attempting to detail let me offer a very brief definition of the theological concept creatio ex nihilo (‘creation out of nothing’). Keith Ward offers this definition:

Creatio ex nihilo (Latin for “creation from nothing”) refers to the view that the universe, the whole of space-time, is created by a free act of God out of nothing, and not either out of some preexisting material or out of the divine substance itself. This view was widely, though not universally, accepted in the early Christian Church, and was formally defined as dogma by the fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Creatio ex nihilo is now almost universally accepted by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Indian theism generally holds that the universe is substantially one with God, though it is usually still thought of as a free and unconstrained act of God.[2]

There are many important theological implications we could explore simply based upon this brief definition, but for our purposes I wanted to inject this definition into this discussion to elevate the idea that God is the Creator, and thus all of creation is contingent upon his Word. It was this idea that God started to use in my life, years ago, before I ever had any understanding of ‘creation out of nothing’, that I could have freedom from my past. This concept, before I knew the theological parlance was captured for me in this Bible verse, “3And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high….” (Heb. 1.3). Interesting how even in this verse the concept of being purified from sins and God’s ‘upholding all things by the word of His power’ are connected. It was this connection that God used to bring freedom for me. The lesson took many years, and was full of ‘anfechtung’ (trial-tribulation). The Lord allowed me to existentially feel the weight of what this world might look like without him as the One holding it together. It is very hard for me to verbalize the sense that I experienced, but it was as if I was questioning all of reality; even physical reality. I would look out at the world and based upon the sort of nihilistic logic that had infiltrated my mind (as a Christian!) over the years I would have this excruciating condition of feeling the transitoriness of all of reality. It was living in this reality, accompanied by ‘intellectual doubts’ (not spiritual) about God’s existence, that of course!, threw me into great pits of despondency and despair. But it was also through this that my perception of reality was transferred from one contingent upon my word—and this world system’s word—to God’s Word. It was this process, ironically, that allowed me to finally understand that “If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; 34 who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.” (Rom. 8.31–32) Again, like with the Hebrews passage, we see here in Paul’s theology that a connection is made between freedom from condemnation and the creational reality of God’s Word; except here what is emphasized is not creation in general, but creation in particular as that is particularized in the re-creation of God in Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Once I’d been schooled enough with the reality that ‘reality’ is God’s reality based alone upon his given and sustaining Word; once I could ‘feel’ that weight, not just intellectually, but spiritually-affectively, the resurrection and re-creation therein had the real life impact I personally needed to be ‘free’ and stand fast in the freedom that the Son said I would be free within (Jn. 8.36); his freedom in the re-creation; the resurrection; the new creation; the new humanity that is his for us.

So I had this doctrine of creation out of nothing in place, in a ‘felt’ way; with the emphasis being upon the reality that God alone holds all of reality together. It was within this conceptual frame that the doctrine of re-creation and resurrection came alive for me; in an existential-spiritual-felt and lived sense. This is why Karl Barth’s doctrine of resurrection has resonated with me so deeply. It is tied into the type of ‘primordial’ thinking that creatio ex nihilo operates from—as part and parcel of God’s upholding Word—and then explicates that from within a theology of God’s Word wherein the primacy of Christ’s life is understood as the telos the fulcrum of what created reality is all about. Robert Dale Dawson really helped me to appreciate this sort of connection between creation out of nothing and Barth’s doctrine of re-creation as he wrote this:

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[3]

Threading out the academic technicalities (that are important in their original context), and focusing on the concepts that serve our purposes, what I draw from this is the significance of what Dawson identifies in Barth’s theology as ‘the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.’ Can you see how all of this might provide the sort of apocalyptic freedom we are in need of in order to live the sort of ‘free’ life that God wants us to before him? It does seem rather mechanical and academic; I agree. Let me try to summarize and draw together the themes I’ve been attempting to highlight in order to provide you with a maybe-way forward in your own spiritual walk and life as a Christian.

The Conclusion. It is actually rather basic, but deeply profound; at least for me. What is required is that we ask for eyes of faith to see what God sees in Christ. He will school us in his ways as we seek him first in the Scripture’s reality in Christ. He will work things into our lives that will shorn away the accretions of the ‘worldly-system-wisdom’ with his wisdom; the wisdom of the cross. He will allow you to ‘feel’ the existential weight of his life, and the reality that that upholds, and within this, this apocalyptic reality of his in-breaking life into ours, the reality that the God who could rightly condemn us has broken into the surly contingencies of our sinful lives and become the ‘Judge, judged.’ If the God who holds all reality together by the Word of his power in Jesus Christ invades this world in the Son, takes his just condemnation of our sins (no matter what they are!) upon himself for us, puts that death to death in his death on the cross, and then re-creates all of reality in his resurrection; then there remains no space for condemnation. The One who could condemn me stands in the way and has eliminated the sphere for condemnation insofar that he has re-created a world wherein only his righteousness reigns and dwells in his enfleshed life for us in his Son, Jesus Christ. What I just noted is the key to grasp. There is another world in Christ; a world accessible by the eyes of faith, provided by the eyes of Christ, in his vicarious humanity which we are enlivened into by the Holy Spirit. This is the real reality that Christians live in and from; and it is this reality that I cling to whenever the enemy of my soul wants to bring me into a life of bondage that belongs to the world that he is king over; a world that is dead and no longer real by virtue of the reality of God’s new world re-created and realized in the primacy of Jesus Christ.

I hope this small reflection might help provide some liberation for some of you out there as well. I realize this all might seem pretty academic, but I don’t really see things that way; I’m hoping you’ll see as a result of this post why I don’t see things in terms of the ‘academic.’ I think good theology, whether people think it is “academic” or not can begin to see that at spiritual levels these ideas can have real life impact and consequences, and that God can use them for the good; he did so, and continues to work this way for me. Just recently, as recent as yesterday, the devil tried to bring me back into a sense of false condemnation and guilt, and I found relief in the very ideas I’ve just outlined. The process, in the head, can be somewhat mechanistic, when working through things this way, but, at least for me, it is what is required for to live a life of freedom that God wants me to live in and from his Son, and my Savior, Jesus Christ. Soli Deo Gloria.

 

[1] This might also explain why I have so much resonance with Karl Barth’s theology. Early on Barth was known as a theologian of crisis. Martin Luther’s theology was spawned by deep angst, and his theology is often related to what is known in German as Anfechtung (trial/tribulation). This is why I have found these theologians, among others, as some of my most insightful teachers; they understand that the ‘wisdom of the cross’, that a theologia crucis and a theologia resurrectionis are the key components for knowing God and making him known to others. This is where God meets us; it’s where he knows we must be met if we are going to meet him.

[2] Keith Ward, Creatio Ex Nihilo (Encyclopedia.com), accessed 05-18-2018.

[3] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

St. Athanasius and Thomas Torrance in Collusion on the Assumption of the Fallen Human Nature in Christ

As an evangelical in Bible College and Seminary (I still consider myself, broadly construed, an ‘evangelical’) I held to the impeccability view of Christ’s humanity. In other words, I believed that not only could Christ not sin*, but that the body he assumed in the man, Jesus of Nazareth, was likewise uniquely fitted for him such that he did not enter into the fallen human nature that the rest of humanity is born into in their mother’s womb. But then later, after Seminary (I graduated in 2003), as so many of you know by now, I came across the writings of Thomas Torrance; Torrance, as many of you also know holds to the Athanasian idea that Christ, in the incarnation, assumed a fallen human nature, just like the rest of humanity’s. Along with Nazianzen and Athanasius et al. Torrance maintained that unless Christ fully entered into our real and fallen human nature that real redemption, all the way down, could not take place. Torrance would be concerned, also, that if Christ didn’t enter the fallen human nature, in the assumptio carnis, that all we would be left with would be with something like an instrumentalist conception of the atonement. I.e. We would be left with a forensic understanding of salvation, necessarily so, since the death of Christ wouldn’t penetrate deep enough into the fabric (ontologically) of human nature to recreate it, but instead he would only be the ‘organ’ of God’s salvation to ‘pay the penalty’ of humanity’s sin (in particular the elect’s); a truly juridical and external type of venture.

Here is what Torrance has written in his New College lecture notes:

Now when we listen to the witness of holy scripture here we know we are faced with something we can never fully understand, but it is something that we must seek to understand as far as we can. One thing should be abundantly clear, that if Jesus Christ did not assume our fallen flesh, our fallen humanity, then our fallen humanity is untouched by his work — for ‘the unassumed is the unredeemed’, as Gregory Nazianzen put it. Patristic theology, especially as we see it expounded in the great Athanasius, makes a great deal of the fact that he who knew no sin became sin for us, exchanging his riches for our poverty, his perfection for our imperfection, his incorruption for our corruption, his eternal life for our mortality. Thus Christ took from Mary a corruptible and mortal body in order that he might take our sin, judge and condemn it in the flesh, and so assume our human nature as we have it in the fallen world that he might heal, sanctify and redeem it. In that teaching the Greek fathers were closely following the New Testament. If the Word of God did not really come into our fallen existence, if the Son of God did not actually come where we are, and join himself to us and range himself with us where we are in sin and under judgement, how could it be said that Christ really took our place, took our cause upon himself in order to redeem us?[1]

And here is what theologian Thomas Weinandy has to say about Athanasius’ view on the same loci (Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2007), 33-4):

It is easy to see the connection between the incarnation and salvation, in ontological terms, when we consider it from both Athanasius’ and Torrance’s theo-logic. It happens to be a theo-logic I affirm these days. Indeed, there are many objectors to this (Kevin Chiarot being the foremost) thinking; but it would be wrong-headed to think that there is not some seminal footing for this view from none other than the champion himself of Nicene Christology and Trinitarian theology, the theologian contra mundum, Athanasius.

It should also be kept in mind that this is precisely the point at which departure happens between Evangelical Calvinists and Classical Calvinists. Classical Calvinists frame their understanding of salvation, primarily, within forensic/juridical lenses; this flows well and even from their understanding of the Covenant of Works combined with the God of absolutum decretum (the God who relates to creation through absolute decrees), and a doctrine of unconditional election. Evangelical Calvinists follow Athanasius, Torrance, et al. in adopting this more ontological understanding of salvation wherein the primacy of Christ as the imago Dei is elevated to the point wherein salvation is understood as the realm where humanity is taken up in the assumption of God’s humanity in Christ, and we are recreated in Christ’s resurrected vicarious humanity for us (Romans 6–8); we are taken from living in subhumanity and corruptibility and brought to participate in and from the incorruptibility of God’s life in Christ, the life that is indestructible (Hebrews 6–7). We still see the forensic in the atonement, but we emphasize, with Barth, the idea that God in his election to be for us in Christ becomes the judged Judge in our stead and reconciles and elevates humanity to be partakers of the divine nature (by the grace of his life) in and through the recreated humanity of Jesus Christ who is our mediator.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation (DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 62.

*To be clear, I along with Athanasius and TF Torrance do not believe that Christ ever sinned, but immediately sanctified his humanity, by the power of the Holy Spirit, remaining the spotless Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the world. Such a sacrifice was required in order for actual salvation to inhere; which is of course why it took God in flesh, the double homoousion of the Son as God, and the Son as human in the singular person of Jesus Christ to accomplish such an impossible possibility.

Christ as the first-fruits and first-born from the death of death: Reflecting Further Upon Sin and Its ‘Sensuous Origin’

As I continue to get into researching ‘sin’ I am doing so through reading, in part, stuff from Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck. I am reading a section he has from his Dogmatics, Vol.3, called The Origin of Sin; how fitting. I wanted to share a section from him which he entitles The Enigma of Sin’s Origin; in it he gets into how folks have attempted to understand what in fact sin is, and tellingly, where it is generated from, from within the human being (if it is). He focuses in, in this section, on the theory that sin is somehow generated by the sensuous; as such, if this is the case the remedy would be some form of self-deprecating, self-denying asceticism. Note:

The Enigma of Sin’s Origin

[312] The question of the origin of evil, second to that of existence itself, is the greatest enigma of life and the heaviest cross for the intellect to bear. The question, Whence is evil? has occupied the minds of humans in every century and still waits in vain for an answer that is more satisfactory than that of Scripture. Insofar as philosophy has taught us anything significant in this matter, it is, broadly speaking, a strong proof for the scriptural truth that this world is inexplicable without a fall. All the great thinkers, even if they were ignorant of Genesis 3 or rejected it as myth, have, despite themselves, given tacit or explicit support to this simple story. And insofar as philosophy looked for a solution to the problem in another direction, it has gotten off the track and sadly gone astray. This applies first of all to the Pelagian explanation of sin, the many objections to which have been touched on above and will come up at length in our discussion of the essence and propagation of sin. But it applies further to all the systems that trace evil not to a creaturely act of will but to the nature of humanity, the world, or God.

In the first place, sin cannot be inferred from the sensual nature of the human race. If that were the explanation, sin certainly would always have a sensual or carnal character. But this is far from being always the case. There are also spiritual sins, sins of a demonic nature, such as pride, envy, hatred, enmity against God, which, though less visible, are absolutely no less serious than the sins of carnality; and these cannot be explained by sensuality, any more than the existence of fallen angels can be explained on this basis. If sins originated from humanity’s sensual nature, one would certainly expect that they would be most vigorous and numerous in the early years of life, and that to the degree that the mind became more developed it would also exert firmer control over it and finally overcome it altogether. But experience tells a very different story. To the degree that people grow up, sin—also sensual sin—has a stronger grip on them. It is not the child but the young man and the adult male who are frequently enslaved by their lusts and passions; and mental development is often so little able to curb sin that it tends rather to make available the means of seeking the satisfaction of one’s desire on a larger scale and in more refined ways. And even when at a later stage in life the sensual sins have lost their dominance, they still secretly stay on in people’s hearts as desires or make way for others that, though more spiritual in nature, are no less appalling. Accordingly, if this explanation of sin in terms of sensuality is meant in earnest, it should result in seeking release by suppressing the flesh; but it is precisely the history of asceticism that is best calculated to cure us of the error that sin can be overcome in that fashion. People take their hearts with them when they enter a monastery, and from the heart arise all sorts of sins and iniquities.[1]

Clearly from a biblical and properly oriented theological perspective this explanation falls quite short; as Bavinck himself develops. But it is interesting to see how people attempt to philosophize about things, particularly sin.

What if sin has so incapacitated the human intellect, what if the so called noetic effects of sin have so savaged the human’s capacity to self-reflect properly that they are left aimless in their search for attempting to penetrate the mystery of the human situation and pollution? One thing that is clear, even for unregenerate minds and hearts, is that people can look around and know that things are eschew; radically so! But even this, according to Scripture is not a ‘natural’ perception; according to John 16 the Holy Spirit convicts the world of: sin, righteousness, and judgment. In other words, without the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and the attending work of the Holy Spirit, there is no access to the real human condition; there is no access to the actual problem which according to Jesus resides in the deceptive nature of our corrupted hearts (relative to their orientation to God).

What the Bavinck quote should illustrate for us is that sin, human depravity and pollution is an unknowable ‘quantity’; it is a surd of inaccessible magnitude. As Barth orients this discussion, we cannot even begin to know what sin is apart from Christ, and God’s holiness on display therein; and even at this entry point sin remains a surd, an enigma. God in Christ did not come to explain sin’s origin, or even its general whereabouts, he came to destroy it and put it to death (cf. Rom 8). In light of the holiness of God revealed in Christ, yes, sin is amplified, it is given a gravitas as we observe the depths and reach it took for it to be dispelled; i.e. God’s personal enfleshment. What the coming of God in Christ shows about sin is that human beings, autonomous as sin would have them to be, are in no place to deal with its corroding and parasitic power. It takes the very ‘being’ ousia of Godself in the person (hypostasis) of Jesus Christ, the eternal Logos, and ground of all reality to penetrate into the marrow of sin’s possessive non-being and nothingness to reverse its beguiling trajectory; to do nothing short of re-creating all things, with Christ as the first-fruits and first-born from the death of death (per John Owen also cf. Col. 1.15ff; I Cor. 15; II Cor. 5.17).[2]

 

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Origin of Sin, accessed 03-16-2017.

[2] This paragraph is largely and loosely inspired by a Barthian and Torrancean perspective on a Christologically concentrated hamartiology and doctrine of creation/re-creation.