Doctrine Of Sin

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.

The Origin of Sin, Pelagius, and Roman Catholicism with Reference to Herman Bavinck

I am just starting to work towards putting together a proposal for PhD research at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (The Free University of Amsterdam), where I hope to be accepted and work with a brilliant theologian there. At these early stages I have tentatively decided to research in the area of hamartiology, or in the area of the doctrine of sin. It will be from a decidedly Reformed perspective, including looking at this doctrine alongside of John Calvin, John Owen, Herman Bavinck, and Karl Barth; with a focus on Barth’s Christological angling of the whole doctrine. In light of that I thought I would put up a post on sin; this particular post will look at Bavinck’s description of Pelagius’s understanding of original sin, and how Bavinck sees that bleeding into Roman Catholic soteriology.

Bavinck writes of Pelagius and Roman Catholicism:

To this monk from Britain everything depended on the free will. He saw it as the characteristic feature of human nature, the image of God, the first principle and foundation of the dominion granted him. Human nature has been so created by God that, depending on its free choice, it is able to and able not to sin; and this equal possibility in either direction, as a natural good, as a constituent of human nature, cannot be lost. As a result Pelagius had to reject all notions of original sin. Adam only brought sin into the world as an example or form. There is indeed a power of evil custom, but this does not so completely control humans that, if they seriously wanted to avoid sin and lead a holy life, they would be prevented from doing so. In any case, sin is not innate; it is always—and cannot be anything but—a free act of the will. The fall, accordingly, did not just occur once, in Adam, and take the whole human race with it, but every human being is still born in the same state in which Adam was, granted that, as a result of the power of custom, conditions are less favorable now. And all humans therefore stand or fall by themselves. Sin originates anew in every person; in every human life there occurs a fall when the power of free will is neglected or applied in a wrong direction.36

These ideas of Pelagius were so obviously at odds with the teaching of Scripture and the faith of the church that they could not possibly be accepted by the church. They were, accordingly, modified and toned down in various ways. Specifically, to Adam’s transgression was ascribed a stronger influence on the state of human nature, and, correspondingly, grace was credited with more vigorous cooperation at the beginning and in the development of the new Christian life. But, fundamentally, the final decision at all these points was again reserved for the free will. In Roman Catholicism, Adam’s transgression did result for him and his descendants in the loss of the superadded gift; and insofar as God had granted this gift to Adam and he therefore should have enjoyed it, the loss of it can be called culpable. But original sin is no more than this privation; it does not consist in the concupiscence that by itself is not sin, nor in an innate evil of the will, for though the will may have been weakened, it is neither lost nor corrupted. Thus fallen nature is actually totally identical with uncorrupted nature; true, the supernatural gifts have been lost, but the natural gifts continue intact. In the abstract, therefore, a person could possibly abstain from all actual sins and, like unbaptized children dying in infancy, acquire a natural state of bliss.37 In this connection Rome could still maintain the absolute necessity of Christianity, however, inasmuch as humans, although in the most favorable scenario they could also acquire a natural state of bliss, could never by their free will receive supernatural righteousness and salvation. To that end the church with its sacraments is the only proper road. But when this Roman Catholic dualism was cast aside by the Reformation, the modalities that, within the circle of Protestantism, took over the Roman Catholic assumptions about original sin and free will 38 virtually automatically had to relapse into the ancient errors of Pelagius and Coelestis or in any case into those of Hilary of Arles and John Cassian.39 For if Adam’s fall did not, or did only in part, deprive the will of the freedom and power to do good, and original sin did not consist either in a culpable loss of an original supernatural gift, then in that same measure grace became dispensable and Christianity was robbed of its absolute character.40[1]

If you’re unaware, Pelagius was a 5th century British monk, and a counterpart of Augustine; they famously dueled-off, theologically, resulting in some interesting reflection by Augustine on his own doctrine of sin (but we won’t get into that presently). As Bavinck reveals, Pelagius placed a heavy emphasis upon the neutrality of the human will towards sin or towards not sinning. Pelagius had influence upon the church, but as Bavinck notes, the church attempted to soften the hard teaching of Pelagius’s concept of an absolutely free-will (i.e. with no need of God’s grace). This softening by the church happened early on, and somewhat compromised allowing for an idea of free-will, but the need for a prevenient  grace to provide enablement for a person to essentially cooperate with God in their salvation, and progressively find favor with God finally resulting in the reward of eternal life. The II Council of Orange (529 ad.) wrestled with this issue, rejecting what could be called ‘semi-pelagianism’ (similar to what I just described) in favor of what they called a ‘semi-Augustinianism’ which focused more on the need for Divine intervention and God’s grace than on ‘free-will’ in the framework of salvation.

As Bavinck highlights, later in Mediaeval Roman Catholicism this idea remained present; i.e. the need for an gratia infusia, an ‘infusion of grace’ remained in order for the potential Christian to have the capacity to move beyond the ‘natural’ (i.e. Pelagianism) state, and move into a super-natural mode wherein the person could cooperate with God in the appropriation of eternal life. It is, for Roman Catholics even today, the church’s role to dispense this grace through the sacraments and re-presentation of Christ’s body in the Holy Mass. All of this to cure the ailment that sin is for the human person.

What is interesting to me about Bavinck’s description of things is how he highlights the kind of Thomistic conception of sin that funds not just the theology of Roman Catholicism, but also large parts of what later developed in what is called Post Reformed orthodox theology; insofar as the latter imbibed the same type of Thomist intellectualist anthropology that funded the Tridentine theology of the Romish trajectory.

Interesting even as I dabble into this how interrelated many themes are going to become simply by focusing on a doctrine of sin. Issues of anthropology, predestination, salvation, ecclesiology, ontology/epistemology, Christology and a host of other things are all implicated and interrelated to how we understand sin and its function within the broader theological framework. I will obviously have to work at how I want to delimit particular aspects, and elevate others for the purposes of research. Writing blog posts like this, along the way, I think, will help me to do that.

 

[1] Herman Bavinck, Origin of Sin, accessed 03-14-2017.

The Personal and Positive Reality of Sin, and How that Impacts Our Walks with Jesus

Sin, the word, has almost become cliché these days; we almost, even in the church, in many ways, think of it in cavalier terms; maybe only because we have been exposed to it so much (for those who have been in the church for any length of time). But sin continues to emmauspersist as a real life destructive element in the world, systemically, and in our lives personally; one might even say sin is a rather apocalyptic reality, albeit with personal and concrete implications in each and every person’s life. With hopes of getting beyond the shallow conceptions of sin we have come to adopt in our evangelical contexts, I am hoping that sharing the following will at least point up the fact that there is much more going on with the concept of sin, both theologically and biblically, than we often are wont to realize.

A former seminary professor and mentor of mine, Ron Frost, wrote is PhD dissertation on a theology of grace; particularly as that was given expression in the English Puritan context, and even more focusedly, in the theologies of two Puritans: William Perkins and Richard Sibbes. In the following lengthy quote from Frost we will see how sin, as a doctrine, was developed by Perkins and Sibbes, respectively; the former holds to the privative view, and the latter to the positive (or affective) view of sin. After this quote I will close with some of my own thoughts on how this understanding, diverse as it is, might impact our lives in personal ways, as Christians, as we walk and live in this present evil age. Frost writes:

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]

Consequent to this summarization, Frost argues and maintains that the doctrine of sin that is present in the theologies of Thomas Aquinas, Post Reformed Orthodoxy, and in some of the English and American Puritans like William Perkins and William Ames is actually Pelagian in orientation; that sin in the privative model sees grace as an abstract created substance that God progressively gives to the elect as they cooperate with it, and God, in overcoming the ‘nothingness’ of sin in their lives. Contrariwise, in the positive model, as Frost summarizes, grace is seen as personified in the person of the Holy Spirit, and sin is not a ‘nothingness,’ per se, but instead an absence and lack of God’s life in the elect individual’s life; the remedy to this, so to speak, is for a person to come into union with Christ and participate in God’s life—thus filling in, not only the lack of God’s life, but also reversing the bondage of self-love and homo in se incurvatus that plagues the human body and soul.

Concluding Remarks

So how does any of this impact our daily walks as Christians? The first thing that a so called positive understanding of sin ought to do, is that it ought to personalize sin in such a way that sin is no longer understood as something that must be overcome by my performance or cooperation in grace with God. The focus then becomes one where the Christian looks to the person and work of Jesus Christ as their only hope and remedy for justification and salvation before God. Secondly, a positive view of sin invites the sinner to abandon anything that they might think they could muster up and offer to God (even if it is construed as grace-inspired in privative terms), and to count all their righteousness as but filthy rags. The hope and actual power available to the Christian at this point, in mortification and repentance, comes as the Christian can, like the Apostle Paul, count everything as rubbish, and rely solely upon the grace of God in Jesus Christ; they can rest in the union they have with Christ, and turn from their idolatry and no-gods, and look to the true and living God in Jesus Christ as their mediator and high priest. In other words, understanding sin in personal terms keeps things personal, and does not then collapse into the privative notion of sin that reduces to moralism and self-loathing with no real power to actually live a victorious Christian life.

In closing, there are some modifications, as an evangelical Calvinist, that I would make to Frost’s ‘affective’ model; but I think what Ron offers is very enriching and enlightening towards better understanding what informs our current conceptions of sin, and how those conceptions might impact our lives negatively or positively.

 

[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. Now published as: Ron Frost, Richard Sibbes: A Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, WA: CorDeo Press, 2012).

 

Sin and Its Yucky Implications for What It Means to Be Human: Engaging with Thomas Aquinas and John Webster

What is sin, and how does it shape what it means to be a human being? Throughout the rest of this post we will mostly engage with the latter part of my question, and leave the former part to the side for a later date.

aquinasAccording to Thomas Aquinas, sin is a ‘wounding of nature’, and by nature he is referring to ‘reason’ or the ‘intellect’ as definitive for what it means to be human at its very ‘essence.’ Note:

So three things oppose virtue: sin (or misdeeds), evil (the opposite of goodness), and vice (disposition unbefitting to one’s nature). Whatever accords with reason is humanly good, whatever goes against reason is humanly bad. Human virtue that makes men and their deeds good befits human nature by befitting reason, whilst vice goes against man’s nature by going against reason. Man’s nature is twofold: he lives by his reason and he lives by his senses. It is through sensing that he learns to reason, but many men never mature beyond the level of sense. Vice and sin result from our following of sense-nature against our rational nature. And going against human rational nature is going against eternal law.[1]

Here we see Thomas elevating reason in ways that, theoanthropologically becomes definitive for what it means to be human. For Thomas he still works within a domain where reason is understood to be something from God, but in his elevating of reason/intellect as the defining feature of what it means to be human, as the defining standard by which we might judge what is ‘good’ or not, he engages in a very modern way of conceiving of what it means to be human, and how we determine what is good and what is not.

Ironically, John Webster takes this modern understanding of ‘reason’ and what it means to be human and moral (thus engaging with sin, holiness, etc.) to task. I say ironically, because as of late Webster has been becoming increasingly Thomist in the way he thinks and does theology. But I believe his critique of the ‘modern’ understanding of what it means to be human and moral could apply at some level to Thomas Aquinas’ usage of ‘reason’ as something that remains something that is somewhat intact and only ‘wounded’[2] even after the fall of humanity into sin. Here is Webster:

… Modernity has characteristically regarded reason as a ‘natural’ faculty – a standard, unvarying and foundational feature of humankind, a basic human capacity or skill. As a natural faculty, reason is, crucially, not involved in the drama of God’s saving work; it is not fallen, and so requires neither to be judged nor to be reconciled nor to be sanctified. Reason simply is; it is humankind in its intellectual nature. Consequently, ‘natural’ reason has been regarded as ‘transcendent’ reason. Reason stands apart from or above all possible convictions, all particular, historical forms of life, observing them and judging them from a distance. Reason does not participate in history but makes judgements about history; it is a transcendent and sovereign intellectual legislator, and as such answerable to none but itself.[3]

The reason I suggest that Webster’s critique of ‘reason’ as a ‘natural’ and definitive capacity of what it means to be human might not only apply to ‘modern’ thinking but also to Thomas Aquinas is because Thomas holds out the idea that ‘reason’ remains only tarnished and incomplete as a result of the ‘fall’, but not necessarily destroyed and polluted to the point of incapacity. For Thomas the mind/intellect or reason remains intact, as it must (since it serves as definitive for what it means to be human), thus only need of restorative ‘medicine’ or grace in order to restore it to full functionability before God; in order for humans to truly flourish at full capacity as good moral beings ‘perfected by the grace of God.’ Thomas writes:

Now this nature is disordered, however, man falls short even of the goodness natural to him, and cannot wholly achieve it by his own natural abilities. Particular good actions he can still perform in virtue of his nature (building houses, planting vineyards and the like); but he falls short of the total goodness suited to his nature. He is like a sick man able to make certain movements by himself, but unable to move like a man in perfect health until he has had medicine to heal him.[4]

Does this abide well with what we see in the Bible, or in the cross of Jesus Christ? No. When Jesus died he took the whole person, the whole humanity in his humanity to the cross and condemned it; the Apostle Paul writes:

For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, …[5]

Humanity did not just need ‘medicine’, and ‘nature’ did not just need to be ‘perfected by grace’ (a favorite Thomas anecdote); humanity (inclusive of reason/mind/intellect) needed to be put to death, not simply healed, it needed to be recreated (ontically at its very essential being) and resurrected anew, afresh in the vicarious humanity of Christ.

And it is this that John Webster understands well in regard to the modern conception of reason as a ‘natural’ faculty, and it is what I am not only agreeing with Webster on, but extrapolating and applying his insight to the theoanthropology and theology in general of Thomas Aquinas. Webster continues to write that,

Such conceptions of reason have become so deeply embedded in modern culture and its most prestigious intellectual institutions that they are scarcely visible to us. But for the Christian confession, these conceptions are disordered. Above all, they are disordered because they extract reason and its operations from the economy of God’s dealings with his creatures. To think of reason as ‘natural’ and ‘transcendent’ in this way  is, by the standard of the Christian confession, corrupt, because it isolates reason from the work of God as creator, reconciler and perfector. Once reason is thought of as ‘natural’ rather than as ‘created’ (or, to put it differently, once the category of ‘the created’ is collapsed into that of ‘the natural’), then reason’s contingency is set aside, and its sufficiency is exalted in detachment from the divine gift of truth. Or again, when reason is expounded as a natural competency, then it is no longer understood as fallen and in need of reconciliation to God. Again, when reason is considered as a human capacity for transcendence, then reason’s continual dependence on the vivifying Spirit is laid to one side, for natural reason does not need to be made holy.

Christian theology, however, must beg to differ. It must beg to differ because the confession of the gospel by which theology governs its life requires it to say that humankind in its entirety, including reason, is enclosed within the history of sin and reconciliation. The history of sin and its overcoming by the grace of God concerns the remaking of humankind as a whole, not simply of what we identify restrictively as its ‘spiritual’ aspect. And so reason, no less than anything else, stands under the divine requirement that it be holy to the Lord its God.[6]

As Thomas Torrance often states ‘we need grace all the way down,’ meaning that we are sinners all the way down, polluted in our whole being. Webster is surely right in his judgment of modern understandings of reason and ‘natural’ capacities. But I can’t help but think that this kind of ‘Thomist Intellectualist’ anthropology we have been visiting hasn’t had a large role in providing for this kind of Western/modern posture and understanding of reason and humanity. Thomas Aquinas, even if he is more sacrosanct in his own self-understanding and mode as the Angelic Doctor leaves the door ajar for the modern conception of humanity and reason as a definitive and ‘transcendent’ reality, even within its own contingent and created reality.

Conclusion

Whether or not my extrapolations are correct it is clear, at least for us Christians, as Webster has been underscoring for us, that we need to be recreated. That we need to become brand new through and through; that we need somebody outside of us to reach down deep inside of our very souls, our very beings and recreate them. We do not simply need medicine, nor do we need to be perfected by grace and elevated to our highest state as created persons. We need something and someOne more. That should be the takeaway of this.

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae A Concise Translation, ed. Timothy McDermott (Westiminster: Christian Classics, 1989), 249.

[2] See Ibid., 270-71: ‘In the original integrated state of man reason controlled our lower powers perfectly and God perfected the reason subordinated to him. This state was lost to us by Adam’s sin, and the resulting lack of order among the powers of our soul that incline us to virtue we call a wounding of nature. Ignorance is a wound in reason’s response to truth, wickedness in will’s response to good; weakness wounds the response of our aggressive emotions to challenge and difficulty, and disordered desire our affections’ reasonable and balanced response to pleasure. All sins inflict these four wounds blunting reason’s practical sense, hardening the will against good, increasing the difficulty of acting well and inflaming desire.’

[3] John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), Loc. 111, 116 Kindle edition.

[4] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae A Concise Translation, 308.

[5] Romans 8.3, NKJV.

[6] John Webster, Holiness, Loc. 116, 121, 125.

God’s Forgiveness. A Refreshment

I don’t know about you, but I struggled with guilt and forgiveness in my life for many years; years that reached back into my childhood, repentantsinnerthrough my teen years, and finally into my young adult years (at which point the Lord broke in and began to do a mighty work to teach me what his forgiveness and his person are all about).

Today I just picked up a book from Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon entitled: The Christian Experience Of Forgiveness by H.R. Macintosh (Thomas F. Torrance’s teacher at the University of Edinburgh). Macintosh is very much so a theologian of the modern period, and his sensibilities are situated within a pietist (albeit, Reformed) framework; of the sort that you might find in a trajectory provided for by Schleiermacher. And yet, Macintosh, while focusing on the ‘modern’ mode of theology as grounded in human experience, moves beyond that as he seeks to ground what that experience looks like from the giver of all experiences, from God.

As I have been reading through Macintosh’s volume I have come across quite a few exemplary things worthy of quotation and reflection, but since this is a blog post I will have to reduce that to one (quote). I found Macintosh’s insight on forgiveness, in the section that I am going to quote, to be very encouraging and edifying (which is why I want to share it). So often it seems that in the Christian sub-culture ‘forgiveness’ as a category is so taken for granted nowadays that it seems to have lost its necessary force (necessary because we are all in such need of it). I think that part of the problem (i.e. lack of focus on forgiveness) is that we have domesticated the concepts of sin and forgiveness so much, or we have psychologized everything away so much, that forgiveness’ significance is either lost on us, or we don’t even really understand our deep need of it in concrete ways. I am afraid if anything, that if we even think about forgiveness we do so in a cliché Christianese sort of way, such that, again, the concept itself has lost its real and transformative force that it ought to have as we live our lives coram Deo before God and before others (and before ourselves). Hopefully what Macintosh has to say about forgiveness will help to re-ignite how important forgiveness is (if its importance has been lost on you) for each and every one of us and as a result we will just magnify him as the only one who can truly forgive us as our heavenly Father. H.R. Macintosh writes:

… To the saint it is a daily discovery that God does not cast him out. Christian as he is, he remains a sinner; saved, doubtless, in respect that he is now in filial communion with the Father, yet not translated magically into a sphere where temptation is unknown, but set to develop moral freedom through struggle and discipline, under the leadership of God and in His enjoyed love. Recurring faults are met by a mercy which he would not dare to claim in right and which excludes the notion that “salvation”, given freely at the start, could be sustained in being by meritorious performance. In the family of God all are in this sense “unprofitable servants” to the end, costing more than the worth of any service.

We reach the conclusion, accordingly, that the ground and spring of forgiveness is in God, not in man. The source and presupposition of its occurrence lies in His being what He is—faithfully and unchangeably the Lover of men. But this implies that the sweep of His mercy must not be narrowed at any stage. When Jesus spoke of the goodness of the Father who sends rains on the just and the unjust, and is kind to the unthankful, He uttered a truth which evangelicalism has been tempted to ignore, or defend in tones of apology. It is not only the good, thank God, who live as His beneficiaries. Mercy is His being, and streams forth to all in uninterrupted kindness. To all, however evil, He continues the gifts and possibilities of life, with a throng of varied powers and impulses suited to the development of personality in the kingdom of free and loving spirits; this also is grace to sinners, given not reluctantly but willingly; in a sense it is forgiveness, manifesting His untiring will to save. How men often reflect on this in a marvelling temper when they have found God in Christ, and look back across years of dull insensibility! How many things in that old life become expressive, witnessing to the ceaseless patience that had pursued us! Even then we were not forsaken by the Father. He surrounded us with persons, influences, appeals which are a proof, in retrospect, that He had never turned from us. That is a fact revealed to us through personal and individual experience, but it must hold good for the whole world. He who was merciful to our folly is merciful to all.[1]

Rich stuff!

I finally overcame the guilt of sin I mentioned above, but not until I came to a point where I could truly trust Jesus. Part of my problem, in the past, in receiving God’s forgiveness was that I had a lot of doubt in my heart about God (his existence, etc.). But the reality was, was that I had this deep sense of guilt over sin, in fact it was of the condemnatory type, and I came to realize (Romans 8) that this was not from God (II Corinthians 7), because it was producing in me an unrecoverable sorry of the type that pointed further into my own resources and not out to God’s in Christ’s. But once I came to realize that God truly was there and there for me abundantly in Christ, I was able to fully receive God’s forgiveness, I was able to rest in the reality that there is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ; the reality that if God is for me in Christ who can be against me; if the Lord does not condemn me, then where was this condemnation and guilt over already confessed sins coming from? It wasn’t coming from the God who already told me that he had forgiven me, that I had already been absolved in Jesus Christ’s confession for me (at the cross and in his priestly session at the Right Hand of the Father).

We need to experience God’s forgiveness, in real and particular ways. I would say that it is precisely because the world (including most of the church) does not experience God’s forgiveness that the world looks the way it does today. It is because we are trying to fulfill desires and wants that mask over our even deeper need to experience the liberating and humanizing forgiveness of God in Christ for us.

 

[1] H.R. Macintosh, The Christian Experience Of Forgiveness (London: Nisbet&Co. LTD., 1947), 36-7.

What do we know of evil and sin?: A Response to Open Theism from Christ Concentrated Theism

I have been having a quick discussion, once again, around the issue of so called ‘Open Theism.’ I had a “friend” on Facebook who is a strong proponent for Open Theism, so strong that he helped organize (I think) the first Open Theology theological conference (last year) that has ever taken place in the United States. This quick discussion (I really did not engage that much this time, although I have more in the past) is prompting me to write this post. So this post will be briefly sketching and engaging with Open Theism, and its antidote provided through the theological thinking of Karl Barth.

creationgod

For my Old Testament class at Princeton Theological Seminary, we were assigned reading from Old Testament scholar, Terence Fretheim’s book Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters. As is apparent from the sub-title, the theme of the book is to engage with the problem of God and evil (theodicy); more particularly with God and human suffering (vis-à-vis natural disasters, human caused disasters, etc.). I was excited to get into this book, but once I made it through chapter one I quickly realized Fretheim’s method to answering this purported problem (of God and evil, i.e. theodicy) was going to be his employment of ‘Open theology’ categories. Maybe you have never heard of Open theology, here is an example of it from Terence Fretheim applied to answering how human beings relate to God and creation in purely ‘free’ ways (supposedly):

Though human beings certainly need to hear that they often think of themselves more highly than they ought to think, it is also important for them to hear that they often think of themselves less highly than they ought to think. To speak less highly of the human is to diminish the quality of God’s own work. And this is the case not least because of such continuing divine evaluations of them as good. The creational commands in Genesis 1:28 and God’s engagement with the human in 2:19-20 indicate that God values human beings, places confidence in them, and honors what they do and say, though not uncritically. Human words and deeds count; they make a difference to the world and to God, not least because God has chosen to use human agents in getting God’s work done in the world…. We need constantly to be reminded that the godness of God cannot be bought at the expense of creaturely diminishment.

Another word that can be used to designate the goodness of creatures is “free.” One way in which the creation accounts witness to this reality is the seventh day of creation (Gen. 2:1-3); this day on which God rests (not human beings) is testimony to God’s suspension of creative activity, which allows the creatures, each in its own way, to be what they were created to be. God thereby gives to all creatures a certain independence and freedom. With regard to human beings, God leaves room for genuine decisions as they exercise their God-given power (see already 2:19). With regard to nonhuman creatures, God releases them from “tight divine control” and permits them to be themselves as the creatures they are. The latter includes the becoming of creation, from the movement of tectonic plates to volcanic activity, to the spread of viruses, to the procreation of animals. This divine commitment to the creatures entails an ongoing divine constraint and restraint in the exercise of power, a divine commitment that we often wish has not been made, especially when suffering and death are in view. But God will remain true to God’s commitments, come what may.[1]

Further:

And so God creates a dynamic world in which the future is open to a number of possibilities and in which creaturely activity is crucial for proper creational developments. In other words, God chooses  to establish an interdependent relationship with the creation; God chooses to work with others in creating. Certain constants are in place: seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night (Gen. 8:22). But beyond that, the future of the world is characterized by a remarkable open-endedness, in which more than God is involved….[2]

What stands out most immediately and prominently is how for Fretheim in order for creation to be ‘free’ it needs to be independent from God, and so he can conclude that in creation something ‘more than God is involved.’ But this is precisely the point of departure between thinking Christianly or from God’s Self-revelation in Christ, and thinking philosophically about God’s relation to His grace contained creation. By trying to create space for human suffering, evil in the world, etc. Fretheim unnecessarily unhinges God from creation in a way that God is placed into competition with creation; leaving room for creation to act independently from God. Which for Fretheim allows him to leave creation open, not just for human beings, but for God himself; and so this then becomes the way for Fretheim to start thinking about why humans suffer, and in a way that does not implicate God (since there is ‘more than God involved’).

What Fretheim does, though, is in order to explain God and evil (theodicy), he sacrifices orthodox Christian reality for heterodox Christian un-reality. If he was thinking christologically, he is offering us an adoptionistic version by unhinging humanity from God in the way that he does (I will have to get into this further later).

But since I am running out of time for this post, let me get to the antidote to Fretheim’s ‘Open’ thinking. We should not attempt, as Christians, to elevate our own reasoning and interpretive capacities beyond their given reality (especially in light of the ‘Fall’ and the noetic effects of the ‘Fall’). When we attempt to move beyond God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ we indeed are exalting ourselves too much, and at least signaling what kind of theo-anthropology and doctrine of sin we are operating from (and how that shapes our hermeneutic and the confidence we have in accessing reality apart from God in Christ). I believe Fretheim in particular, and Open Theology, in general, move within this kind of analytical philosophical venture of doing theology that thinks beyond and outside of Christ while at the same time trying to work its way back to Christ (which would be Pelagian). But I digress. Here, I suggest, is the proper way to think of God and human suffering; and how to do so from a genuinely Christ-centered way versus the philosophical way that Fretheim and Open Theology gives us.

What does it mean? Is it not the opposite of what we might expect from the news that God became Man? Here there is suffering. Notice that it is here for the first time in the Confession that the great problem of evil and suffering meets us directly. Already, of course, we have frequently had to refer to it. But according to the letter this is the first time we have an indication of the fact that in the relation between Creator and creature everything is not at its best, that lawlessness and destruction hold sway, that pain is added and suffered. Here for the first time the shadowy side of existence enters into our field of view, and not in the first article, which speaks of God the Creator. Not in the description of creation as heaven and earth, but here in the description of the existence of the Creator become creature, evil appears; here afar off death also becomes visible. The fact that this is so at least means this: that discretion is demanded in all descriptions of wickedness and evil as being to some extent independent. When that was done later, it was more or less overlooked that all this enters the field only in connexion with Jesus Christ. He has suffered, He has rendered visible what the nature of evil is, of man’s revolt against God. What do we know of evil and sin? What do we know of what is called suffering or what death means? Here we get to know it. Here appears this complete darkness in its reality and truth. Here complaint is raise and punished, here the relation between God and man is really made clear. What are all our sighs, what is all that man thinks he knows about his folly and sinfulness and about the lost state of the world, what is all speculation about suffering and death beside what becomes manifest here? He, He has suffered, who is true God and true man. All independent talk on the subject—that is, talk cut loose from Him—will necessarily be inadequate and imperfect. Unless talk on this matter goes out from this centre, it will be unreal. That man can bear the most frightful strokes of Fate and comes through untouched by anything as through a shower of rain: that can be seen by us to-day. We are simply untouched either by suffering or by evil in its proper reality; we know that now. So we can repeatedly escape from knowledge of our guilt and sin. We can only achieve proper knowledge, when we know that He who is true God and true man has suffered. In other words, it needs faith to see what suffering is. Here there was suffering. Everything else that we know as suffering is unreal suffering compared with what has happened here. Only from this standpoint, by sharing in the suffering He suffered, can we recognize that fact and the cause of suffering everywhere in the creaturely cosmos, secretly and openly.[3]

There is much to commend here, but I best stop for now. (See footnotes below for further comment)


[1] Terence E. Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010), 15-16.

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Karl Barth, Dogmatics In Outline (Great Britain: The Camelot Press Ltd., 1949), 103-04. This book is an off the top (for Barth) series of lectures that he gave to students at the University of Bonn (Germany) in the summer of 1946. It was his explication of The Apostles’ Creed, and the quote I have from him above is his reflection on the part of the creed that goes: ‘Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell….’

What Barth is taking seriously is the theological/christological and biblical reality that all of creation is within the domain of God’s grace in Christ; and furthermore, that all of creation’s point and purpose, then, is in and for and from Christ. If this is so then what becomes impossible is to attempt to think about anything unhinged, as it were, from Christ (so against Fretheim, Open Theology, et. al.).

 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. 19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. ~Colossians 1:15-20

John Webster Laughs, He Sighs: Taking the Bible Back From The Errantists And Inerrantists

The Bible is part of God’s domain in Jesus Christ; it speaks God’s lively voice over, and often, against us. When I encounter approaches to Scripture that are premised upon a posture of sitting over Scripture through some platform ostensibly offered them by some sort of ‘pure nature’ that gives them critical space to question Scripture’s veracity as God’s deposited words to humanity; I laugh. When I come across modes of engagement with Scripture that think Scripture finds its orientation, again, from a ‘pure nature’ (meaning a non-contingent independent understanding of nature that is abstract from God’s upholding Word, and thus self-sufficient and self-possessed homo in se incurvatus); I sigh, this is childish.

John Webster laughs, he sighs:

To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction. To speak of the historia Scripturae is to say that Scripture is what human persons author, and that its interpretation is what human persons do to get at the meaning so authored. In describing authoring or interpreting, language about God is superfluous, or merely ornamental, or invoked only as the remotest background condition for human communication. Further, priority is given to the generic features of the biblical writings and their interpretation – the features which they share with other texts and acts of interpretation – over the particular situation in which they function – over the particular situation in which they function – the situation, that is, of divine instruction. That situation is epiphenomenal: most basically, the ontology of the Bible and that of its readers is that of pure nature. Thus, for example, the category of ‘text’, with its linguistic, semantic and literary properties, comes to play a different role in modern study of the Bible from that which it plays in Augustine’s De doctrina christiana. For Augustine, the text’s linguistic, semantic and literary properties are signa mediating divine instruction, whereas for moderns they are not underlain by anything other than the processes of authorship or the history of religion. Even when the category of ‘text’ is supplemented by those of ‘scripture’ or ‘canon’, these refer largely to the use of and ascription of value to texts, and carry no metaphysical weight. Running parallel to the naturalization of the text there is the ‘deregionalization’ of practices of interpretation, a standardization of its operations and ends which takes its rise in a natural anthropology of the interpreter and interpretive reason. Nor are matters helped much by supplementary talk of ‘God’s “use” of the church’s use of scripture’, for here God’s agency remains consequent rather than initiatory.

Countering the hegemony of pure nature in bibliology and hermeneutics requires, appeal to the Christian doctrine of God, and thus of God’s providential ordering of human speech and reason. Within the divine economy, the value of the natural properties of texts, and of the skills and operations of readers, does not consist in their self-sufficiency but in their appointment as creaturely auxiliaries through which God administers healing to wasted and ignorant sinners. What more may be said of this economy of revelation and redemption of which Scripture is a function?[1]

What Webster is communicating would be in line with what Brevard Childs has written here, in regard to a posture toward developing an approach and standing within a mode of humility toward the text of Scripture, and its reality in Jesus Christ: “… The true expositor of the Christian scriptures is the one who waits in anticipation toward becoming interpreted rather than interpreter. The very divine reality which the interpreter strives to grasp, is the very One who grasps the interpreter. The Christian doctrine of the role of the Holy Spirit is not a hermeneutical principle, but that divine reality itself who makes understanding of God possible.”[2]

There is an dogmatic order to Scripture’s placement relative to God in Christ. Scripture comes from within a proper and Christian doctrine of creation; and a proper Christian doctrine of creation comes from a proper doctrine of God in Christ, Christ as creation’s telos or purpose (cf. Col. 1.15ff). There is no abstract intellect that is embedded within a sanitized (from God) natural history that has the capacity to construct an alien (from God) criteria (like positivism, or empiricism, etc.) that God must submit to in order to be heard. God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, He knows the number of the hairs of our head, he feeds the birds of the air, he clothes the lily of the pond, and He is the content of His written Word.

If what I just asserted (above) be so, then the errantists and inerrantists are irrelevant to the Bible.


[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 6.

[2] Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 86-7.

Stop It! Stop It! Quit Looking at Yourself: Knowledge of God, Knowledge of Self

Karl Barth, hearkens back to John Calvin in many ways; but of course Barth doesn’t do so uncritically, or in ways that remain abstract from Barth’s own theological categories and emphases, formed as they are by his centraldogma of election in God’s life for us, with us, and thus not without us.

So in true to expected form, when discussing salvation and personal knowledge of God, Barth sounds a lot like Calvin, when it comes to Calvin’s basic understanding about knowledge of God and knowledge of self that is then oriented by the proper order of knowing God first. Calvin famously writes in his Institute:

Again, it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy–this pride is innate in all of us–unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity….[1]

Barth follows this theme in Calvin, but radicalizes it; again, based upon his reified understanding of election and how that implicates both God and humanity in Christ and his unio personalis. In other words, Barth has a thick, robust, and even more explicit and non-dualist theological-anthropology at play when he considers knowledge of God, and knowledge of self. Humanity is objectified, by the subjective humanity of Christ for all; as such, if we really really are serious about understanding ourselves, understanding what it means to be human, what it means to be in relation to God (which is to be rightly human as sustained by the indestructible life of the Son for us) we will always look to complete and all sufficient life of Christ. We won’t engage in the pietist turn of constant self-examination; we won’t psychologize ourselves to death; we won’t be obsessed with an individualist style of Christianity; we will, instead, look out and up toward Christ. This approach definitely changes how we think of our daily walks and spirituality (I will have to comment on how I think that looks later). Here is the way Karl Barth, according to George Hunsinger, understood this kind of Calvinian approach to things:

Therefore, if we sinful human beings are to find the truth of our existence, the reality of our salvation, and the ground of our selfhood before God, the basic rule is that we should look away from ourselves to Jesus Christ. “The greater the concentration with which we look at him, the better will be the knowledge that we have of ourselves” (IV/2, 269). We are not to seek knowledge of our salvation by means of introspection or self-examination. We are to look away from ourselves as consistently as possible. “It is a matter of knowing ourselves . . . in Christ,” writes Barth, “and therefore not here in ourselves, but there outside ourselves in this Other who is not identical with me, and with whom I am not, and do not become, identical, but in whose humanity God himself becomes and is and always will be another, a concrete antithesis” (IV/2, 283). Our self-knowledge as the knowledge of who we are in Christ (who stands over against us even in uniting with us) can only occur as we learn to recognize ourselves in him, since “in truth” we are not outside but are so within him that he is our “truest life” (IV/3, 545).[2]

How badly need this kind of outlook is, in North American evangelicalism in particular. We currently are living in the contemporization and repristination of our Puritan pietist past that emphasizes a spirituality with an undo specter of exhorting Christian people to look inward, to the fruits of their labor, and contrition of their souls to prove to themselves, the church, and the world that they are indeed Christians. And so a Barthian/Calvinian antidote to this kind of (The Gospel Coalition and likeminded movements among evangelicals) ‘spirituality’ as sorely needed. If Jesus is the ground, if he is THE human, and you derive your existence, your human being by participation with and from his by the miraculous re-creative activity of the Holy Spirit; then looking away and to Christ ought to become the balm to the overly burdened and individualized soul who wanes under the weight of its own laborious proof of life.


[1] John Calvin, Institute, 1.2.37.

[2] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 119, Nook. 

‘From’ Christ, not ‘For’ Christ: “Why don’t you have a category for obedience?”

I have lots of people email (instead of comment) me about my various posts here at the blog. Recently I received an email from someone who wondered why I didn’t have a category (in my categories for the blog) designated as “obedience”? I haven’t emailed this person back yet, but I thought before I did that I would respond to this rather interesting observation here at the blog first (it seems fitting for me to do so).

adam-eve-garden-of-eden-1To start with, I do have a category entitled “ethics,” which deals with issues and instances of concrete instantiations of Christian obedience (or disobedience); and then I do deal with Christian obedience in many posts, but they aren’t under a specific category of “obedience,” but instead those can be found under the category of “salvation” (and then a lengthy process of weeding through this posts will ultimately yield results that show I have dealt with questions that are oriented around Christian obedience). But I would like to answer this question with more particularity, and clarity on why my blog does not emphasize this category (as important as it is!). My blog does not emphasize this category (in the way my interlocutor is wondering, I presume) because the way I think of our relation to God in Christ, has Christ in the way; and I mean in the way of you and me (logically, theo-logically). Historically, and classically, Evangelicals (given their hybrided dependence upon Reformed/Covenant theology) have emphasized relation with God through a mode of emphasizing law-keeping conditioned by forensic categories of thought (just read an Evangelical systematic theology if you don’t believe me). And insofar that I have eschewed this classical mode, I have abandoned emphasizing law-keeping (code for ‘obedience’, usually) as the emphasis by which I understood relationship with God, and how I conceive of Christian holiness (or obedience as its subsequent expression). To provide an example of where the Evangelical heritage comes from, theologically, in this regard; let me quote Kim Riddlebarger (a contemporary advocate of Covenant Theology, and member of the White Horse Inn radio broadcast, along with Michael Horton), as he sketches the original and lasting relationship and way that he (and the classically Reformed) think of how God and man (God/world) relate to each other through the Covenant of Works (or Creation):

[A]s redemptive history unfolded, the first Adam—the biological and federal representative of all humanity—failed to do as God commanded under the terms of the covenant of works. The Lord God said to Adam, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). This covenant of works or, as some Reformed writers speak of it, the “covenant of creation” lies at the heart of redemptive history. Under its terms God demanded perfect obedience of Adam, who would either obey the terms of the covenant and receive God’s blessing—eternal life in a glorified Eden—or fail to keep the covenant and bring its sanctions down upon himself and all humanity. Adam’s willful act of rebellion did, in fact, bring the curse of death on the entire human race. This covenant of works is never subsequently abrogated in the Scriptures, a point empirically verified when ever death strikes. This covenant also undergirds the biblical teaching that for any of Adam’s fall children to be saved, someone must fulfill all the terms of the covenant without a single infraction in thought, word, or deed (Matt. 5:48; 1 Peter 1:16). [Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding The End Times, 47.]

Much could be said in critique of this conception of things (and I have already said much, just check my category “critiquing classical Calvinism”), but in order to not get side-tracked from the point of this post, let me stay particular to my intention. In predictable form (since Covenant theology has Creation preceding Covenant), Riddlebarger allows Creation to condition Covenant instead of seeing Covenant (God’s life of gracious love) conditioning Creation (one serious fall out of this theological ordering is that Jesus becomes conditioned by creation instead of conditioning creation himself as homoousion—I digress!). In other words, when Reformed thinkers like Riddlebarger, and his whole tradition, start theologizing and biblical exegeting they start where Riddlerbarger starts, with Law (or the Covenant of Works/Creation). And yet, as Ray Anderson has highlighted (along with others), what should be understood (first), is that God spoke and created (which is an act of grace as corollary with His overflowing life of Triune love). So what grounds any relation with God, first, is not Law-keeping, but the fact that God spoke (which is grace)! This might seem to be a subtle shift, but it is profound!

Following this shift of emphasis, what becomes primary is not my personal obedience (and Law-keeping), but God’s in Christ for us. As Thomas Torrance has written (as I just quoted this in a post below this one),

[…] Under the gracious impingement of Christ through the Spirit there is a glad spontaneity about the New Testament believer. He is not really concerned to ask questions about ethical practice. He acts before questions can be asked. He is caught up in the overwhelming love of Christ, and is concerned only about doing His will. There is no anxious concern about the past. It is Christ that died! There is no anxious striving toward an ideal. It is Christ that rose again! In Him all the Christian’s hopes are centred. His life is hid with Christ in God. In Him a new order of things has come into being, by which the old is set aside. Everything therefore is seen in Christ, in the light of the end, toward which the whole creation groaneth and travaileth waiting for redemption. The great act of salvation has already taken place in Christ, and has become an eternal indicative. [see full text here].

This does not mean that personal obedience is not important, but it frames it in a way that allows me to keep my eye on Christ instead of first looking at myself (and then reflexively looking at Christ: i.e. reflexive faith], as if I, myself, can somehow be abstracted out of the only true humanity which is Christ’s. So I “seek first His kingdom and righteousness, then all these other things will be added unto me” (and I only seek first, because He first loved (and sought) first that I might love Him, through Him by the Spirit). My relationship with God is not dependent upon my obedience, but Christ’s obedience for me (us); and so this ought to go along ways in illustrating why I don’t have a separate category (apart from Christology) for obedience in my sidebar. Thomas Torrance in his (posthumously published) book Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ really captures the import of this shift and way of framing things from God’s gracious Self directed life for us in contrast to the Legalistic emphasis that the classical Covenant of Works flows from:

(iii) The holiness of the church is its participation through the Spirit in Christ’s holiness

 This holiness is actualised in the church through the communion of the Holy Spirit. He only is the Spirit of holiness, he only the Spirit of truth; and therefore it is only through his presence and power in the church that it partakes of the holiness of Jesus Christ. Since the holiness of the church is its participation through the Spirit in Christ’s act of self-consecration for the church, then that is the only holiness, the only hallowing of the church there is. That is the holiness which was actualised in the church when it was baptised with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the union of the church with Christ was fulfilled from the side of the church as well as from the side of Christ.

The church is not holy because its members are holy or live virtuous lives, but because through his presence in the Holy Spirit Christ continues to hallow himself in the midst of the church, hallowing the church as his body and the body as his church. Thus the true holiness of the members is not different from this but a participation in it, a participation in the holiness of Christ the head of the church and in the holiness of the church as the body hallowed by Christ. Participation in this holiness however involves for the members of the church a life of holiness, just as it involves a life in Christ, of faith relying upon his faithfulness, of love that lives from the overflow his love, of truth that comes from the leading of the Spirit. Because the church is the body of Christ in which he dwells, the temple of the Holy Spirit in which God is present, its members live the very life of Christ through the Holy Spirit, partaking of and living out the holy life of God. Therefore personal holiness, and all the qualities of the divine life and love found in their lives, are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. [Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement, edited by Robert Walker, 386-87.]

There is a lot to comment on here as well, but I must limit myself. I will just say that it is this reversal of things (i.e. placing the Covenant of Grace [God’s life Pre-destined]) from Law to Grace that explains why I don’t have a category explicitly labeled “obedience”. It isn’t because I don’t think Christian obedience is important, it is because I think the gr0und of this emphasis is roundly rooted in Jesus Christ for us (and thus I have a category for Christology instead). It isn’t that I don’t think personal obedience or holiness are important, I do! Instead, it is because I am persuaded that focusing on Christ and God’s Triune life of gracious love, and participating in that from the Spirit’s unioning activity will produce obedience and the life of Christ through the members of our bodies as they are constantly given over to the death of Christ that His life might be made manifest through the mortal members of our body. We obey, only because Jesus obeyed for us first. We don’t obey to ensure that we are one of the elect that God purchased from the mass of “perdituous” humanity; we obey because God loved us first that we might love Him back through the mediating and priestly Spirit anointed humanity of Jesus Christ. It is only through this framing of things that I feel I can live out this exhortation from St. Paul:

 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. ~Galatians 5:1

Without the freedom of God for us in Christ I live under a burdenouss yoke that really ends up being hell; which, I am pretty sure this is what Jesus came to save us from (ourselves), and for Himself (and His shared life in the Monarchia or God-head). So obey, but only from Christ by the Spirit, not for Christ so you can find God’s approval.